Editor’s note: Here at West Side Rag, we pride ourselves on telling the truth. But we’re trying a new experiment today — fiction! Inspired by the strange story of the Upper West Side glasses-cruncher we published last week, West Side Rag columnist Maria Gorshin wrote a short piece of fiction reimagining the scene. Check it out below.
Too many days alone in New York had made him crazy, especially on his poor man’s diet of coffee, bagels and bar fruit. He’d been pushed at the 72nd Street subway station, shoved at Zabar’s to-go, patronized by a guy with a clipboard on Broadway and growled at by a yappy dog on 79th Street. Now he was being ignored by the afternoon bartender at Dublin House even though the place was empty. Back on the street he was fed-up – with the noise, the city, the rain and, most of all, himself.
At a stoplight on Broadway his eyes met a face in the crowd. It was gentle and full of good will. It seemed to radiate kindness. Suddenly, he wanted to punch it so bad with the full force of his lousy day. When the light changed he aimed the bulk of his body for the sweet-faced stranger and “accidentally” bumped the guy as hard as possible. The man’s glasses tumbled onto the street. He crushed the glasses with his boot and kept walking. He had ruined someone else’s day and it made him feel great. He waited a few minutes before walking back to collect the shattered bits of the stranger’s glasses – a souvenir of power for his empty pockets.
Suddenly his day was brighter. People stepped out of his way. Pigeons scattered on his approach. The yappy dog that had growled at him earlier in the day at 79th now whimpered and cowered under a bench at Verdi Square at the sight of him. And that’s where he found a $20 bill. He knew exactly what to do with it. He looked up at the Ansonia, at the window of a living legend, and directed his steps toward the building.
The elevator opened on the building’s unmarked upper-most floor – the 13th. The halls were dim and his footsteps echoed on cracked marble. The atmosphere was heavy with the ghosts of the landmark’s past. He pressed the buzzer on apartment 1313 and it creaked open under the pressure of his finger. His eyes filled with color – shades of red and gold. He was in Madame Noemi’s world now, a place unknown to anyone but Upper West Siders with a taste for the supernatural and the telling of fortunes.
Madame Noemi lounged in opulence surrounded by gold brocade and paintings of hellfire. A butler lit her cigarette where it emerged from an elegant holder held tight between a slash of ruby lips. When she spoke only her eyes seemed to move in her ancient face, as if over the decades she had melded into the paintings behind her. He had questions to ask – about his future, his destiny – but she was the one who spoke.
“Give me what you hold.”
He knew immediately what she meant and drew the broken glasses from his jacket pocket. A knobby hand reached for them, rings on every finger. She pressed the bits of glass and metal into his hand, burning her eyes into his. He stifled complaint then looked down. The glasses were whole again. He realized for the first time that the glasses he had destroyed had been vintage – wire-rimmed 1970s aviators. She instructed him to put them on and leave immediately. He left the twenty where incense burned on a lacquered table.
Back in the hall the Ansonia’s past came alive. That’s when he realized the old woman had given him the power to see, and even hear, as if it were the 1970s again. He laughed at the bizarre but definitely entertaining power a found $20 bill had purchased.
Now he could see into the warren-like studios that lined the 13th floor. In one apartment a beautiful boy with long dark hair played drums, swaying in a room lit only by daylight pouring in from a porthole-shaped window. Next door to the drummer, a writer toiled at a wooden desk, his fingers keeping time with his rushing thoughts upon a typewriter.
He walked slowly down the Ansonia’s grand central staircase, tempting vertigo every few moments by pausing to stare all the way down 13 stories of open space. He clutched the glasses, afraid they might tumble off his face.
On the 10th floor he left the staircase behind, to explore another hallway. There he peered past a wall into an apartment where an elderly couple lived with a host of free-flying parakeets. On the sixth floor, his steps echoed upon dark linoleum until he stopped to peek into the home of a maestro named Viccini. The fine-boned man raised his voice at a tearful opera singer in one room while a woman painted an oil miniature in another, her visage framed by a picture window facing Broadway.
On the second floor, an elevator opened and four young women emerged, walking with the signature turnouts of ballerinas. They led him to the studios of the American Ballet Theater. There, men with Baryshnikov dreams warmed-up their powerful limbs and delicate waifs walked en pointe between classes.
When he reached the Lobby he was stunned not to find the security desk or the polish of the present-day Ansonia, but a shabby, bustling place where the elderly sat talking in clusters, a newsstand sold 75 cent cigarettes and he had the choice of exiting the building past Plato’s Retreat on West 73rd Street or through a freezing-cold deli onto Broadway. He chose to leave the building through an old-fashioned apothecary and ended up standing on the corner of West 74th Street, amazed by all he was now able to perceive.
He stood tall, full of vigor, a look of wonder on his face. He removed the glasses just for a moment and saw vegetable bins lining the sidewalk in front of Fairway on 74th. He put them back on and saw a diner that featured flame-broiled cheeseburger deluxe platters instead. He heard rhythmic “hi-yas!” from a second-story karate school above the diner.
Through the windows at Citarella on 75th Street, he saw a display of gourmet good taste when he peered over the lenses of his glasses but when he looked straight through them he saw an all-together different scene: a narrow store with grimy floors where fishmongers in paper hats joked with customers and piles of fresh fish lay out in the open on ice. Next door, a shop sold psychedelia to hippies on their way to Central Park.
Strolling, he caught a light at a corner on Broadway. While he waited to cross, he gazed about him amused and filled with a contentment he had rarely known. Suddenly, he felt a hard slam. Someone had bumped into him…accidentally. In horror, he watched as his precious vintage glasses tumbled onto the sidewalk. As if in slow-motion, he reached down to save them but not before a stranger with cruelty in his eyes reached them first with the heel of a boot.
He stood to watch the stranger walk away and grief struck him like a physical blow. At that moment he noticed a hand-scrawled sign on a light-post above him. At a glance he understood it was a flyer made by the man he had victimized earlier that day. He stared at the drawing at the center of the flyer and recognized himself as he had appeared only hours before – dull, lifeless. He read the words, “Be careful –cuidate – this is not a nice man,” and he wept, seeing himself as if for the first time. He stumbled down the street without glasses and without hope. No one heard his whispered cries.
”I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
Photo of poster by Glark.