The Ruin — where my friend Jorge Ruiz spent some of his nights — was decorated in twisted car parts and fruitless conversation and postindustrial clutter, in the collision of strangers and in the flicker of lost opportunities. Some of it was decoration; some of it was left over from whatever manufacturing operation had occupied the space in the early decades of the century. There were, on the walls of the Ruin, the melted shapes of obsolete computers, suspended from the wall on old meat hooks. Those early desktop Macintoshes — Typing Tutors or Flight Simulators or unfinished novels still flashing anemically, in green, on their screens; motherboards splayed on counters and at tables with microchips scattered around them like a new currency. Gutted stuffed animals stapled up on the wall and mangled dolls. Floors covered in straw and fiberglass and asbestos and metal shavings and bent nails and tattooing needles and syringes. There were the rusted steel shovels of ancient backhoes: gladiatorial burial vessels. Volkswagen Beetles attached by chains to the ceiling: splendid and degraded chandeliers. The design vocabulary of the meat packing district — the meat packing district of New York City — made the Ruin what it was. It seemed hard back then to imagine clubs, these kinds of clubs, without the meat packers. The meat packers, the ranchers, the butchers. The broad clean wound that the butcher, ankledeep in blood, opened in the animal’s arteries, the head toppling from the calf—in Texas, in upstate New York, or wherever this butchering was taking place —the neck stump quivering before him.
The butcher and his victim weren’t all that far from the guy at the Ruin who left at home a disconnect notice or an unemployment voucher or an unhappy marriage or even a double-booked dinner at the Four Seasons or Café des Anistes so that he could open his mouth and quench his thirst on another man’s waste.
The action was in the stalls. Were these actual stalls, Jorge wanted to know, at first, like stalls from your public school, transported into the Ruin after they had outlived their usefulness over at P.S. 103? Or were they carefully decorated stall facsimiles, with artificial yet highly suggestive stall graffiti? The designers, as clever as they were angry and remorseful, would never tell. People had come this far and they were paying a lot of money for non-alcoholic drinks and they sure as hell wanted everything, even the graffiti, to be contributing to the pungent and bracing sleaze of that club, the weird sadness that lay in the air like religious incense, like smells and bells. So if they weren’t real stalls, Jorge thought, they were at least designed by people who had spent their time in public schools and who knew the code of sadism that lay at the heart of public school corridors, who knew the erotic power of handtools and dental drills and heavier machinery.
The logistics of home, the logistics that oppressed the regulars at the Ruin, could only be solved in this theater of detritus, of glory holes, of discipline and submission, of piss and shit; so they wanted home near and far, oppressive and yet declawed. They wanted stalls, they wanted industrial spaces, they wanted uniforms, and (in part) the threat of deadly diseases, but the sight of a balance sheet, the sound of a cash register, or the ebb and flow of ordinary conversation, these were the things that really ruined these patrons, that caused them mortal discomfort.
The guy on the table being fisted by two men at once, two men wearing black leather face masks with zippers across the mouths; the women with the penciled-on sideburns, with the dildo that glowed violet, glowed with a sort of strontium 90 kind of light; the woman who lightly, desultorily whipped herself, while mumbling an alphabetical list of sexual insults; the guy suspended in the cage with the daggers sheathed in his pectorals, in his pectorals — the possibilities seemed endless at first, but they weren’t at all. The possibilities were marked by the faint, beveled edges of modern imagination, by the devouring ennui of the straight culture that the Ruin honored by opposing all the time, in every way. I mean, after a while, Jorge knew that the guy getting fisted was named Malcolm and that he was an assistant stage manager of off-off-Broadway shows and that he had a brother with cerebral palsy, just as Jorge knew that the woman with the dildo —who said her name was Huck — was from San Antonio. Actual name: Doreen. When she was a kid, Jorge had learned, she had been a Deadhead and an environmentalist, an artist of batik and macramé.
Every day the Ruin stayed open was a miracle of invention; every day it threatened to get old, to run its course, to succumb to legal inquiries, to file for bankruptcy, to liquidate its assets, and still the regulars came. They waited for nightfall, for the early part of the evening to pass, when the breeders had all gone home to their genetic responsibilities. They waited eagerly, but without a choice. The Ruin was like the psychiatric hospital where some of them had done time. It was a last chance joint with directions to the next last chance joint; it was rock bottom with a trap door in it—Jorge told me so —and after all, he knew about eschatology. He detoxed himself in the psych ward and came out again to tell of it. He got a prescription for that crystal, lithium. He had come to the end and found there were innumerable other ends in the cauldron of his city.
When Jorge Ruiz wasn’t visiting sex clubs — and it was the question you always wanted to ask about the people you met there —he lived on Times Square. Middle-thirties, medium height, perilously thin, hair in tiny steel coils, a large burgundy splotch on the left side of his face, a birthmark, a speaker of Spanish and English and Spanglish. He had left his mom, who lived alone in Union City, to come to Manhattan. That is, he had left behind the outlying dilapidation for Manhattan. And Times Square was where he ended up, where it was cheap enough, where there was a high turnover of real of death, terror, illness and the sex industry.
You know the throw weight of chance in these decisions, the decisions about where to live, Jorge told me, the kilotonnage of chance — you come one day looking for an apartment, two other guys are looking at the Voice the same minute you are. There are thousands of people looking at the Voice, really, but these two guys, these other guys, in particular: one guy ends up living in Harlem, one guy ends up living in Chelsea—and this second guy dies young— one guy ends up in Times Square. You all look at the same apartment one day, though you never really meet. Next day, you step on the same gray, stringy piece of Trident gum on Seventh Avenue and Fifty-third Street; the same desperate panhandler, in the upper forties, asks all three of you for change (he’s a guy I knew in college, now schizophrenic); you fire the same real estate agent. But you never meet.
And in this way you figure out after a while how the people around you, in New York City, are like so much dark matter. You don’t know who they are, you never meet them, but they shadow you. Your movements implicate one another; your good stretches and disconsolate moments are one and the same.
Other New Yorkers, they are exactly like your friends, your New Yorkers, except for one small detail—Jorge explained — they were born in the D.R. not Puerto Rico, maybe, or their hair is a lighter brown, or they really prefer tea to coffee, or prefer boys to girls or girls to boys, or they prefer Techno to House or House to Techno, or they live in clubs like Lebanon, where people get stabbed, clubs that last a year or two and then are gone. These New Yorkers have three brothers instead of two. Or they never did drink or never did start smoking that shit or they never did finish school. Or they went to graduate school and now can participate in grand discussions about the city’s duty to house the homeless or about the dialectic of literary-something-or-other that has, at one end, formalism, and at the other, hermeneutics.
These people look exactly like other people you know. That guy passing on Forty-sixth Street looks exactly like that guy you met on line at the Ziegfeld. That guy looks like someone from your gym. He’s even carrying a gym bag. And in fact the two of them, those two guys you just saw, those guys who look like other people you know, they also look like one another.
In this city of the Ruin, an entire manufacturing run of human beings was completed, Jorge said, and then the molds were all used two, three, maybe four times, to save money on newer molds, and if you are lucky you never meet your own double. If you’re lucky.
Which is not to say that we don’t grow into the particulars of our environment. Twins grow apart; identicals grow apart. Ultimately we and our doubles —all of us —are seized by vain, idiosyncratic quirks. Landscape works on people the way diet does, or the way local television broadcasting does. People grow apart. They get kinks. Like it says in the Gospels: Fortunate is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human.
So Jorge Ruiz, who lived in a neighborhood with a thousand kinds of nakedness, came to see nakedness as his vocabulary. With it, he tried to explain things, his merciless depression, for example. Jorge lived over a store that sold knives, just around the corner from a pickup spot called Sally’s. The new Sally’s, that is. (The name was lettered in the opaque window on Forty-third in browned, unsticky masking tape.) Sally’s was as venerable in the world of transsexual hustlers as, say, the Algonquin — only a few blocks away —was venerable to the charlatanical writers of the sixties and seventies. The old address, the old Sally’s, had burned somehow. Before Jorge got there. Suspicious activity. An unhappy or confused trick. A shortfall in protection money.
Around the corner from Sally’s II was the Peep World, a midtown sex establishment of enduring popularity. It too had burned once; it too had struggled back from this calamity. PEEP WORLD! HOT! EUROPEAN! GAY! KINKY! BIZARRE! RUBBER GOODS! MARITAL AIDS! It was all mirrors and antiseptic spray. It was all lockers inside, like some demented public high school, like P.S. 103. There was a guy whose job it was simply to hose down the video booths afterwards, but sometimes he was backed up or on break, and you slid, or your sneakers squeaked, in fresh extract. Jorge had been inside, of course, had sampled video booths both straight and gay, had even made the acquaintance of this bored young man with the cleaning agents. His name was Ray and he stood off to one side like any other minimum-wage laborer —checking and rechecking a plastic five-dollar watch.
And across the street was the Priapus, an all-male erotic film center. ARMY BRATS. TRUCKER STUDS. TRAPDOOR TREATS. LOCKER LOVE. PRISON GUYS. HARD AS STONE.
At first, Jorge liked to watch the kinds of artificial expressions that played across the faces of the men, and even the women, who ventured past the neon entrances into these local enterprises. He was eating a Sabrett’s hot dog, say, and leaning against a destroyed parking meter, watching. There was a certain way consumers of the erotic pretended that they were fortuitously drawn there, a certain low gear in which they traveled, a certain look they had that said—Jorge told me —The office where I am dropping off this important document seems to be right by this suggestive nude poster. Or, There happens to be someone I recognize inside, glancing at that rack of. . . videotapes! At first, these superficial acts of dignity pleased him. Or at least his apprehension of them, his apprehension of their hypocrisy, pleased him.
Until he was going in there himself.
Because after a couple of months in Times Square, he was visiting these addresses, too.
Like this: In front of the Peep World, the sky was the blue of colorized films. The traffic moved like it had never moved before. Somewhere the mayor of New York City was dreaming of pitching Manhattan to the Democratic National Committee or to the Grammys. His pulse raced in this dream. The mayor napped and dreamed of public check-signings and flawless photo opportunities and a Manhattan that operated like a Japanese factory, and just for one afternoon his dream had come true. It was a miracle. The cars were racing past the Port Authority Bus Terminal as if there were a civil defense emergency uptown; the homeless, including that guy I knew in college, had stirred themselves from their vents and grates because it was so beautiful. And that afternoon Jorge had followed up on a half-dozen leads for jobs, including a promising opportunity teaching English as a second language. True, he had a friend with that horrible kind of pneumonia; and his mother was old now, and wouldn’t live long, especially not alone in New Jersey, but the breeze in the air nourished him today; he was like some purely aerobic organism, and that evening’s full moon would hang above Times Square like the most fabulous neon. That day, no decision seemed wrong. The operations of chance were like a fine harvest.
There was a girl in some salacious poses on the billboard out front. She was the girl with a hundred aliases —Trixi, Candi, Belle, Wanda, Ginnie Mae —and her retouched curves adorned the doorways of every pornographic outlet on Eighth Avenue. Jorge saw a couple of guys in UPS uniforms check both ways and roll into Peep World, and in spite of the good luck he expected from himself that afternoon — he was even imagining tomorrow’s Post with nothing but good news in it —in spite of everything, he was following them. His hand was on the slippery stainless-steel door handle —you had to open that door, you had to manifest your intention to enter — as he strode across the threshold. How do they decorate a place like this? I was always curious.
Inside the Peep World or the Show Center or the Nude Revue or the Triple XXX Lounge, Jorge learned, the girls were like the rest of the citizenry of New York: exhausted, overworked, frightened of the future, cynical, bitter, looking to cop. He talked to them, sometimes, the ones in the double-occupancy booths, or the ones who writhed on felt-covered tables, though he wasn’t terribly attracted to them, though he had some deficit in sexual desire now, and this in no way endeared him to the women who were working. And he had little money to tuck under the elastic of their G-strings. Anyway, in conversation, Jorge was worse than awkward. He was an educated guy who looked a little weird, a little pasty, kind of ill, but also gentle and knowing and forgiving. Jorge told me himself that he talked the way a confidence man talks, trying to catch you in some well-traveled fallacy, or like a religious zealot, unyielding and lost at the same time.
— I guess this is supposed to be when I take my pants down, he said to the girl in the double-occupancy booth, that confessional. She was tricked up like a dominatrix. She frowned.
—You can do whatever you want, she said.
Sound of her voice muffled by plastic.
— Is there some . . . is there a kind of routine you do if I don’t know what to say?
—Uh, sure, I guess . . .
—Touch, uh, touch yourself and . . . No, wait, Jorge said. Wait. Just wait a second, okay.
He sighed deeply.
— You don’t have to do that, he said. You don’t have to . . .
— Look, she said, if you’re not going to . . . If you don’t wanna . . . If you’re not here to get off, why bother?
— My money, Jorge said. My money.
A silence, as though they were closing in on something. Then at the same moment the invisible factories of chance manifested themselves. Like a lethal blade, the window guard slid down between them. Rustling on the other side of that impenetrable wall. Time for more tokens.
It was later, or it was another day. He didn’t talk to the girls, the lap dancers, or whatever they were that year, he looked at the ones in the booths. Or he didn’t even look in the booths, he looked at the video screens with their innumerable channels and innumerable parameters of chase and entrapment. A hand grasping. A cock, as large and brutal as some amputation stump. He simply wanted to see what was on every channel. It no longer had to do with wanting to see a woman dowsing with some bruised-looking phallus, or with some guy sitting on some other guy, taking the thing into him. Or a young girl moaning breathlessly. It was all just want and flesh, bodies melding in cold fusion, bodies without borders, bodies eager for the subterranean passage that led beneath and beyond New York City.
Jorge hustled from the video rack to the booths to the rubber goods, those handsome Caucasian and African simulated penises, strap-on harnesses, those ticklers and pincers and rings and clamps and devices of the rougher trades. Inflatable women, the sort without politics, pillowed, vinyl facsimiles of kindness. He hovered everywhere like a yellow jacket trying to get the sense of Peep World, he wanted to know, wanted to know. He was shivering with excitement, and somehow the shivering seemed to have its own separate strategy. Or as Jorge said later, The thrill of pornography, well, it was around a long time before pornography ever was.
Then he was back in the booths: Ray, the purveyor of antiseptic, reprimanded Jorge for accidentally pressing a button unlocking his booth too soon. Toothlessly, Ray mumbled, his lips folded back in disappointment and contempt to reveal the black rinds of his gums: Don’t open the fucking door till you’re done. Jorge settled himself again into the video booth, and he was finally able to stroke himself to the point of points, to the summa, and then he was grateful.
He was grateful that the atomization of city life could be dealt with simply on this cash basis; that the cobwebs that had decorated his oldest fantasies, the stuff he thought was his burden alone, could be cleared away just by turning some dials and spitting into your palm; he was grateful that the workers in the sex industry had, he was sure, kind bones. What more compassionate people were there? Who was more accepting of the desperate and lonely? As a profession of kindness sex work was easily more inclusive than either social work or nursing. He was suffused with a feeling of gratitude that was all out of scale with the brusque, impersonal machinery of Peep World.
And the feeling didn’t last very long. It didn’t even endure beyond the premises of the establishment, in fact. The expanding streets of Times Square —bubbling up and cracking, engulfing and digesting — had not evaporated while he was inside. That brief afternoon interval of municipal fellowship and teamwork had vanished. It had just been coincidence. Jorge was back in the old New York, the quarreling New York. What he wanted, what he desired, the city was taking these slowly from him.
He killed time, like other users of pornography, between the glittering entrances to Times Square. There were gyro restaurants —GYROS! PITZAS! —and passport-photo shops and the video-game parlors and back-dated magazine shops, the Best Western for foreign teenagers, cheap bars for the theater district and stores that sold Broadway memorabilia and knives, and cheaper bars for the hard luck binge drinkers. Lingerie stores for transvestites. Liquor stores with bulletproof glass and little slide-through slots for pint bottles.
And here was what he felt when he came out of Peep World (a couple of drops of seminal fluid riveting his shorts uncomfortably to his thigh): he could feel the charcoal and polonium falling from the sky; he could feel the urgency in every conversation; he could see that men walking the streets were fitting brass knuckles on over their arthritic joints. He knew why people went into Peep World. Because they were feeling really good; because they were feeling really bad; because they had had trouble at work; because they were having trouble with their girlfriend; because they had no girlfriend; because they had two girlfriends or two boyfriends or a girlfriend and a boyfriend, and they didn’t know how to choose between them; because they were lonely; because they never got any time alone; because the world was full of hypocrisy; because it was not; because they weren’t caring for the people they loved; because they were tired of caring for others; because the skies were blue, or their car had a dent, or their cat was sick, or they’d had an argument on the subway, or they wanted to live in the country and own a trailer, or they were tired of the country, or they hated tuna, or they loved rock and roll; or because they had no money; because they had too much; because they were honest with themselves; or because of chance—Jorge said —because of chance.
The neon of the gyro place, the neon of the shoe-repair store, they were all the neon of Peep World. Jorge confused the thresholds of these businesses. They were identical. Just like, after a time, strangers and the people he knew were one and the same. The neon that called to him in Times Square was all one sign. Follow your itch, it said, hasten your descent. Go ahead, dive.
His mother helped him out some, with money, I mean. She had some social security and some money given her by Jorge’s dad, an Eastern European man from Edison, who had abandoned them when Jorge was just a baby. Occasionally Jorge put in a little time here or there —in a travel-book publisher once, temping, doing some clerical work at a clinic in Times Square. These jobs did not last because Jorge had trouble getting out of bed. It was Epstein-Barr virus or pernicious anemia or maybe just an attack of nerves. His mother had cures involving various spices. Bills and equations were tightening around him like the leather restraining straps you saw in the Ruin, or maybe they had always been there, he told me, tightening around him, a part of his life, bills and math and algebra and all that stuff he couldn’t really learn in his public school, the school with the sadistic stalls. He saw the forms of these equations on his walls, he had actually selected a wallpaper with 1040-EZ forms on it —he had good taste in decorating, he was a tasteful guy, when he had the energy — and sometimes when he was particularly upset, he tried to fill in these forms. Or so he told me. He used a red laundry marker, the pen of choice for suicide notes. He never could get these columns of numbers to add up the same way twice, as he was often late with the rent and often finding bills that were black-bordered and threatening. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t work. Work exhausted him. Then he’d go to the Triple XXX Lounge.
Somewhere in the midst of these months tumbling inertly into much longer stretches he picked up the other most economically important commodity of his neighborhood, the name of which is such bad luck that it’s scary to pronounce it here. I like its name, though, its first and last names —so many hard Cs. A name that was made to sound good in English. In the Romance languages, it would sound ugly and hard. But here in the new world in the languages of Native Americans, the Anasazi, say, it would perhaps be the lovely name of an estuary or a long, rolling meadow. It was made for this continent. It was made for this place. Despite bad luck, then, I will write its name here: crack cocaine.
The street hustlers— the prostitutes —and the dealers in Times Square were all attached by coincidence, chance and circumstance. They were all acquainted, as in any other New York City business, and it made convenience shopping for vice that much more pleasant. Jorge had hustlers sleeping in the doorway of his apartment building, girls and boys, teenagers who wore the same clothes day after day, who had lice and open sores, who were hives of HIV. These kids were hustlers only in the most limited definition of the term. They would do whatever you wanted for a price, they said, but they wouldn’t do it, really; they would get scared in the end and say that you couldn’t fuck them in the ass—Yo, it’s dangerous—or could they just jerk you off, or they wouldn’t say anything at all, they would assume a stony and resentful posture until you gave them the money anyway.
They were just junkies, in Jorge’s view, cross-addicts, crack-heads, garbage-heads, call them whatever you want, they were ghosts, they were the afterimages of people once photo graphed or yearbooked or fingerprinted or otherwise entrapped in a devouring system of images. Ghosts, children already dead to their parents, dead to their principals, ministers, social workers, friends, fuck buddies, running partners, dead even to their dealers, ghosts who would for drugs assume corporeal form, as if crack cocaine was some conjuring stone. They were ghosts like he was a ghost, like Jorge was a ghost and later an addict, too, living far from his own neighborhood, far from his mother, sleeping all day, drawing the blinds, and then going to the Priapus to watch a double feature in which a dozen robotic actors with large mustaches pretended to be camp counselors or infantrymen and then unsheathed themselves.
So this shit these hustlers were smoking, it was available right in the doorway of Jorge’s building, because the dealers and the hustlers were all mutually implicated somehow. They appeared at the same time each morning. They hung around in the same way. And that shit they smoked was cheap the first time around. So Jorge, after some months of refusing, gave it a try. It was cheap when you first learned about the way its network stretched out around you, about its system of distribution and shipping and sales and marketing, and about the way it traveled in your neural pathways, Jorge told me, which was an exact replica of the chart of its distribution — it was all bait and switch, divide and conquer, symbolic and imaginary, you were talking, you were talking, and the sentences were getting longer and longer and you were saying stuff to this dealer, who was also smoking this shit, in impossibly long sentences, sentences that mixed something that masqueraded as euphoria with the most venal cruelties—Jorge was laughing as the guy called his girls crackhead bitches that first time, Jorge was saying that Dominicans was the crassest motherfuckers in the city — and the shit was dancing in your bloodstream like rogue cells metastasizing, and you were thinking, hey, this is pretty good, and then you were going to the ATM on Ninth Avenue and Forty-second for the fourth time that night, that night, uh huh, because it was almost sunrise and you hadn’t slept yet and your money was going to this guy who wasn’t getting much of it because he was a low-level employee nothing more and his profit was going to this guy back in Jackson Heights and his money was going to the guy who was flying this shit in and his money was going to some other guy who lived in the jungle who was using some of it to pay off the military government of his country, which was trying to pay off loans that your bank — the one that owns your ATM —made to this rain-forested country, and you, meanwhile, had one of those crackhead bitches in your bed, gimme one of those crackhead bitches, or one of those crack- head boys, sucking on your dick, didn’t matter which, boy or girl all the same, the mouth around you right then was just a mouth—suck my dick, you crackhead bitch —and your dick had no self-respect left in it anyway, there was nothing left in you, in fact, you are impotent and it is morning and you haven’t slept and the blinds are still drawn and you loath yourself more than you can say, fucking right you do, only that’s too simple, self-loathing, because your revulsion for yourself is bottomless, could power a hydroelectric generator, and it sounds this morning like someone is trying to open your bolted windows with a rusty tire iron someone is coming in and the screech of city buses braking, they call your name, Jorge, on the wind. New York City is a slow corruption. It is time to find some work. To find some money to buy some more of that shit from that guy who lives on his feet at the bottom of your stairs, Jorge told me.
After that, after that first time, Jorge would have liked to have said that he stayed clear of the drug. He would have liked to have visited his mother in Jersey. He would have liked not to have his blinds drawn again and his cat tipping over cartons of half-eaten Chinese takeout, his cat chasing the cock- roaches. He would have liked to say that he had bathed or that he had read the paper or even circled some help-wanted ads or cleaned the tub or done a dish or taken the filter out of the coffee thing or that he at least had one of those compulsive cleaning sessions that visited him when he had a hangover, when he went looking for every trace of the night before in his apartment, a night he only remembered in part anyway, shining his apartment, buffing it, polishing it, on his knees, short of breath.
But after a while he didn’t even want to straighten out so much, Jorge told me. Getting clean required an effort he no longer possessed. This aperçu was the kind of thing people might whisper to you in the sex clubs. Someone sits down on the next stool and says. My life is really coming to an end, if you want to know the truth. Don’t say anything. Don’t patronize me. Don’t try to convince me otherwise. Stage-whispered over the music. After a while, Jorge’s resolve had gone the way of other New York resolutions. It became the style of some other Jorge, some other New Yorker, some guy who looked like him but didn’t have his bad luck. The Jorge who had health insurance.
So he was at Sally’s II one day. He had come up for air, and he was talking to a very nice girl named Crystal with whom he shared this penchant for grand dramatic statements. Crystal said, having just met him. My life is fucked up when I am not high. I am simply at my best when I’m high. Being a man was just a way of slowly dying for me, I may as well just tell you. I am a girl like other girls. I would just like to have a husband and live a life in the Catholic church.
Crystal’s complexities, her physical inconsistencies, didn’t bother Jorge. And he knew that Crystal would come with him on the promise of crack cocaine. And they walked up Forty-third Street, the way of all champagne dreams, the way to all Las Vegas weddings, and they walked right up to the little guy sitting on the hood of a car in front of a place where they sold fake identification cards, and this guy said to Jorge, because Jorge was now a regular customer:
—What the fuck you come up to me like this, what the fuck? You crazy? What the fuck? This my business. You’re an asshole, man. What the fuck. What the fuck you doing?
He was gesturing ominously, violently at Jorge, who couldn’t figure how he had done anything out of the ordinary. The dealer led them around the corner onto Forty-third Street, heading toward Ninth, making a number of lascivious comments about Crystal, about the size of her breasts, and, because he sensed it was a big night for Jorge, he quoted a price higher than usual. An outrageous price. For the crack cocaine. So Jorge refused.
And then his luck turned uniformly bad.
Now Jorge and Crystal were standing there with commuters swarming around them —toward the bus terminal —and she was yelling. What is the matter with you? She yelled anxiously as if what troubled her were not the crack cocaine, as if there were something much deeper, some life-threatening thing for which this moment was merely emblematic. Her voice plunged down into a lower register. She had a robust voice, a singer’s voice. Boys with breasts, Jorge told me wearily, they are angels and when they break your heart they take you closer to God.
It started raining. It was raining, and they were standing there, and then she was swishing off in her high heels, and Jorge was limping after. No wait. Honey, no, wait, thinking she looked an awful lot like someone he had known when he was young. In spite of all her operations and medical procedures, she looked like a girl he had known in Newark, the first girl he had loved, Kristina, who had eyes like colored beads. Crystal. Kris. Which was which?
So he jogged back and gave his last few dollars to the hyena in front of the ID parlor. Paid the price. It was that kind of night. The dealer was laughing at him now; he was pronouncing grim prophecies in a dead tongue, as Jorge disappeared up the block. And then Jorge and Crystal were back at his place and they were grief-stricken, yes, it actually came over them like a contagion and they were crying and somehow they had gotten the rock and they were smoking it and they were making these rash promises like their marriage would be a grand affair, with a reception that would go on for days, and it wouldn’t matter that Crystal couldn’t afford the kind of gown that would have best suited her, and then she started to go down on Jorge and it was an act of mercy, really, not much else, and he put his hand down between her legs, because in spite of everything else, in spite of the fact that he was sweating profusely and grinding his teeth, he felt this was somehow a real chance to exercise those atrophied muscles of compassion, it was the last night he ever felt love, maybe, and he actually said this really stupid thing to her, he actually said these words, words with their own intentions and syntax, This is the last night I’m ever going to feel love, he told me, he told her, and he reached down there to the little chrysalis-shaped stub that had once been Crystal’s penis before all the hormones and stuff—it was roseate and shriveled and it didn’t exactly snap to attention — and he tried to coax something from it, some shiver of recognition about the structure and implication of contact, about sex and human kindness. Because at least he wanted to give something to someone else. Because if he had become impervious to his own feelings, he at least felt like he could give something to someone else. Crystal moaned as though she might come, but he knew that nothing of the sort applied. They were right near Broadway after all, and he was sleeping with a guy who was more or less acting the part of a woman, a top flight performance, a Broadway performance, and the moan was to attest to the success of Jorge’s own erotic masquerade and how it made Crystal feel, ostensibly, well, kinda sexy.
And still he came. Depressed when the moment arrived, with none of that cocaine-self after orgasm, none of that grandiosity. Cocaine had emptied him. There was simply less of him than there had been in the early part of the day. No tranquilizer was going to restore that deficit. He was grazing bottom. His testes emptied their burden. He reached his arms around her. They held one another. Yes, and then they gave up consciousness.
In the morning. Crystal was gone. She had stolen the last few valuable things in his apartment: some silverware his mother had given him, an antique vase his father had sent him once.
I don’t need to tell you of the grim movement of the next month or so, the way the utilities were getting shut off, the income-tax people bringing up stuff from years ago, the landlady threatening. These particulars are not unusual and so I abbreviate them. Jorge said that he preferred to read by candlelight, as solitary readers had done for centuries, and he had no need for a phone. He called his mother collect from the street.
He began shooting heroin as a matter of course. It was the equal and opposite reaction to what I have been describing. It was just another thing to do, heroin or speedballs, and it actually served to broaden him in a way: it got him out of the house. It got him into Harlem, where one of those guys he had never met, the guy who looked at his very apartment right before he took it, was also shooting dope. It got him into the East Village, where there were a number of other people he would never meet, but who were quite close to him —a friend of mine, in fact, Dave, with whom I went to college, and a girl Dave almost went on a blind date with once, and a painter from the gallery Dave’s never-to-have-been blind date once worked at. All these people were in Harlem or on the Lower East Side, putting money in a pail that a guy was whisking into a rundown tenement building. Heroin got Jorge into the East Village, from which it took him a really long time to get home when he was high. And it got him, in the end, into the Ruin. His habit wasn’t gigantic, but he was starting to take risks. His arms were pocked here and there. The Ruin followed directly from that. It was no longer a matter of any bio-electrical orgasmic spike. Orgasm was out of the question. The Ruin was where Jorge felt relaxed, to the degree that relaxation was an idea he still understood. Listen, he said to me. Times Square is a place you live because it’s the only place left where you feel like you are comfortable. And this is true of this club, too, and maybe even true of all of Nueva York. He could have lived in San Juan, say, or in Bridgeport or Toronto, but the ebb and flow of macroeconomics had brought him here, and he had relaxed into chance the way one grows attached to a shirt that is a size too big.
Maybe he heard about the Ruin from some of the women at Peep World or Sally’s II (where he went later to look for Crystal, to beat her senseless, but he never did find her), or maybe he was just drawn there by walking aimlessly along the desolate streets beside the West Side Highway. He was wearing khaki pants and a Hawaiian-print shirt and a belted leather jacket and a gold necklace. He had a beard now and his eyes had that disembodied, unsouled look of junkies, and he recognized no ordinary human boundary in conversation. I’ve been looking at you all night, he said to me in the Ruin. And then he told me what I have told you. There was no emotion in him, he was as gray as a blank screen, but at the same time there were in him all the regrets of this city. The story of his decline and fall was marked by repetition and coincidence. The same opinions again and again, in further states of decay, the same complaints about the city, about how the museums were fascist and all the good clubs were closed, and how the best neighborhoods were off-limits for a person of his origins.
What happened to him that night after I met him at the Ruin I am able to tell you. What happened to him after he started shooting dope and before he detoxed himself, Jorge’s story, or the part of it that I know, ends this way: we talked above the din of industrial racket. There were dancers in studded leather underwear. A night in June. Jorge disappeared into one of the stalls. When he came out again he was jaundiced. I was thinking about going to an after-hours bar. Jorge said he was going home, but instead he went down to the East Village, to a cop shop he had heard about. This I learned later. A bakery on Eighth Street and Avenue D that was a front for a heroin operation. Jorge didn’t know the East Village well, though, and so when he got off the subway at Astor Place, he wandered block after block into the rubble of that neighborhood trying to find the bakery. It was deep in the night now, and he was trying to find it, the silhouettes of these abandoned blocks were ominous, and he was feeling sick and shaking, and he didn’t think he was ever going to sleep again, going up and down Eighth Street, thinking about how to get out of this neighborhood and back into Times Square without being bashed or robbed or murdered or anything else, and also not thinking about it, but thinking — with the one last flickering neurotransmitter given over to ordinary human curiosity —how was the place, the bakery, going to be decorated?
Starless sky. The only pedestrian traffic working the same line of business that Jorge was engaged in. When he finally found the bakery, by chance, oblivious to a sudden confluence of meteors above the city, he was as lost as he would ever get in his short life. He was sick, he told me. I was sick.