by Bill Bowler
|Chapter 1: Peeping Tom|
Poetry is the natural enemy of philosophy. — Octavio Paz
Young Walter Wobble quits school to go out into the world and find the People. With no money or prospects, he works as a busboy while writing poetry and dreaming of success. Through his tenement window, he watches from afar a young woman who lives across the street until, one day, they meet. Unfortunately there is already another man in Cynthia’s life, a man Wobble knows: he is Josef Mrak, and he has some very bad karma.
In the fall of 1983, without thinking things quite through to the end, I quit NYU and moved to The Bowery to find the people. My dad was pissed, because it was the beginning of the semester and he had just paid my tuition; but he should have saved his money.
College had become unbearably boring and sterile, and I couldn’t stand it for another day. Sitting in stifling classrooms with dull lectures droning on, and trying to memorize dry, dead, irrelevant textbooks to pass meaningless tests had become torture. I felt like I was bound and gagged, and I was straining at my bonds to get free.
I needed to get out, to immerse myself in life, to find new experiences and adventures. I set out to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears, to observe life in all its aspects, misery and opulence, wealth and filth, the great and the insignificant. Idealistic and full of optimism, I thought generosity could change the world. I was in control of myself and my future.
How little I understood human nature. How ignorant I was of the human mind. Everything was new and strange. Once away from the insulated campus, the city invaded and distorted my senses. I meant to live honestly, to dedicate my life to poetry and record our epoch in verse, avoiding the corruptions of politics and business. I gave little thought to how I might sustain myself in the mundane world.
I moved into a cheap little apartment off The Bowery. My brother’s girlfriend’s sister had vacated it to move in with her boyfriend. It was halfway between the Salvation Army headquarters and the Volunteers of America. The landlord lived somewhere in Queens. There was no lease and the deal was cash on a month-to-month basis.
The building was an old run-down tenement, pre-code, with the fire escape snaking down the front outside. The whole structure tilted to one side, settling on its foundation, if it had one, and the stairway inside was all crooked angles, like a fun house. Naked neon light bulbs illuminated the dingy hallway.
I moved in October 1st, when the days were still warm and the sun shone through my front windows all day. It wasn’t until later I found out the landlord was stingy about steam. On cold winter nights, I could see my breath inside and had to huddle in bed shivering under the covers. On the coldest night of the year, with the north wind blowing though the cracks, and frost forming on the inside of my window, I finally called him to complain but a voice told me he was out receiving an award at a charity dinner.
I felt sorry for the old Italian lady who lived on the third floor. Dry and wrinkled, frail, with pure white hair, she looked ancient. She told me she had been born in the building. I think the landlord was trying to freeze her out. Her son, himself an old guy with gray hair, lived on the second floor but his apartment had no power. The old lady ran an extension cord under her door, down the stairway to her son’s apartment to give him juice.
My own apartment was kind of grimy. Hot water was a rarity. The plumbing was screwed up. No water pressure. The shower was a trickle and you had to flush the toilet on the installment plan. The shower floor was all cracked and leaked down into the apartment below me. But still, it was my little place, my little piece of heaven, and, on my meager and fast dwindling savings, I could just manage to afford it. And living there, I had complete freedom and independence.
* * *
My apartment was up on the fifth floor, in the front. I pushed my table up against the window and put my little typewriter dead center so I could look out at the world for inspiration while I was writing. I was trying to develop a new kind of poetry, a new language. I had grown tired of love lyrics, tired of the same old song: “I love her! Why doesn’t she notice me?” Now I wanted to depict society in a realistic style. From my table at the window, I gazed out at the street, and at the rows of skyscrapers and construction in the distance downtown.
The corner of Prince & Elizabeth,
A deserted, ill-lit movie set,
The bakery, lowered gates,
And in the distance, deep in the field,
A jagged row of square glass teeth,
A glittering hypodermic,
And lanterns in skeletons...
The rows of tenement windows across the street were like rows of TV screens. I made up names for the people who appeared in the windows. “Ol’ Pops” in his guinea-tee and perpetual six-pack on the fire escape; “Conchita” in her slinky nightgown, and her father, smoking his pipe with a baby in his lap; “Mrs. Chin,” the Chinese lady hanging out all the laundry; “Rosie,” the Italian butcher lady, leaning out her window for hours, resting her elbows on the sill on a nice soft pillow.
The tenements that lined the dirty street were a rainbow of bands of different colors: orange brick with white trim, red brick with black trim, yellow brick with red trim. The curtains and interior paint gave shades of green and blue, shimmering at night as silhouettes passed to and fro. It was a continuous spectacle for my thirsty spirit.
The TV screen in Ol’ Pops’ apartment glowed day and night. There were endless babies in Conchita’s father’s lap. On the street below, the growl of trucks, the clatter of the garbage men, shouts, the crack of dominoes, the rhythm of salsa from the social club on the corner. I sat at my typewriter, held aloft by inspiration and seeking words to embody the lives at which I gazed.
However, back on Earth, I needed to get a job. My savings were almost gone and there would be no immediate income from my writing, not for a year or two. I would have to finish a novel or a screenplay and get an agent interested. I would have to harness my poetic impulses into those more prosaic, organized forms. It was easy to whip off a poem in an hour or two, but the longer, commercial forms would require extended effort and discipline. I felt it would be at least a year before I could sell a piece and the royalties would start streaming in.
In the meantime, I had about $900 saved from working behind the counter at the NYU student snack bar. I’d had to leave that job when I dropped out of school. My new landlord had wanted $500 up front; that is, first and last month’s rent. The bloodsucker also wanted a security deposit and “key money,” whatever that was supposed to be, on top of that, but I was able to stall him. That left me a $400 cushion.
I was faced with the immediate necessity of finding employment, a “day job” to pay the rent and buy groceries while devoting my real time and attention to writing. I decided to look for work in a restaurant, since I had some experience.
I walked over to West Broadway in SoHo, knowing there were a number of nice bars and restaurants along a five or six block stretch there. Rule #1 was to work in a place I couldn’t afford to patronize, to insure the tips would be decent. I went into “Chuckles” on Spring St. first. The bartender told me to come back on Thursday between five and six, when the manager interviewed job applicants. OK.
I strolled down to the Spring Street Bar. The bartender there told me to come back Wednesday between three and five and talk to the day manager. All right.
I tried another really artsy-fartsy place with unbelievably expensive drinks and oil paintings hanging on the walls like a gallery. I stood in a little line with some cute girls and good-looking slim guys, waiting to interview with the manager. I had lucked into the right day for applicants. The manager hired two people in front of me on the spot but had me fill out an application and told me he’d be in touch if he needed help. Looking for work was incredibly fatiguing. I walked back over to Elizabeth St. and up to my apartment to recuperate.
* * *
I woke up the next morning thinking maybe I would give the job hunt a little rest as I was getting nowhere fast, and it was kind of exhausting and debilitating. It was a mild, clear fall day. A warm, gentle breeze blew through my open window, two purple finches were hopping and chirping on my fire escape outside, and the sky above was a piercing, infinite blue.
I sat at my writing table, put a blank sheet of paper in the carriage, took a deep breath, and looked out the window. It was then She appeared for the first time in the window of the fifth floor apartment across the street from mine. She had long strawberry hair and a beautiful, angelic face. Her dark dress accentuated a pale cream complexion. She leaned out her window, looking down at the street as if expecting someone, exposing her breasts to me, admittedly at some distance. They were big. I couldn’t help but stare. She looked up in my direction and I dropped my eyes in confusion. When I looked up again a moment later, she had disappeared.
Uneasy and anxious, in a state of agitation, I blew off the job hunt and spent the afternoon watching her window and struggling to write. But I was blocked now. Nothing came. What do I know, anyway? Nothing. What have I seen? Little. I grew disgusted with my own laziness and sense of failure. I passed the afternoon lost in daydreams, writing nothing. My only efforts were fitful glances at the window across the street. Daylight waned. I sat motionless in my darkening apartment.
The lights went on in the apartment across the street. She entered a kitchen, carrying a package. I watched her, hypnotized by the very simplicity, the complete ordinariness of her activities, rendered intimate by my invisible observation. She disappeared for a moment. The lights went on in the adjacent room. She picked up the telephone and stretched out on her bed.
I watched as she spoke, at first calmly, reclining, but then more heatedly. Her movements became abrupt. She rose from her bed and began to pace back and forth, waving her free hand. I could even hear her voice faintly when she began shouting into the receiver. She slammed the phone down and sank bank onto her bed, covering her face with her hands. A moment later, she closed her shades.
I watched the breeze blow her curtains, hoping for one last glimpse of her. It was wrong, I suppose, to spy on her, at least on one level. But I could justify it as research, fieldwork for my writing. I wasn’t spying: I was only observing phenomena which I would transform into poetry.
* * *
When I got up the next morning, I went to the window and leaned out my fire escape, breathing deep in the sunlight and surveying the street. My eyes moved to Her bedroom window, but the shades were still drawn and She, beyond the scope of my vision. I sat in my chair at the table by the window, deep in thought.
She appeared in her kitchen, with only a towel wrapped around her. I could see now she had long, very shapely thighs. I should have drawn my shades, as she was too careless to draw hers. I had no right to violate her privacy. If I had had any morals or ethics, or even common decency, I would not have watched.
She leaned into the shower stall next to her sink in the kitchen, testing the water. She waited a moment while it warmed up, smoking a cigarette. Not once did she even glance in my direction. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. She reached into the stall once more, then dropped her towel. For one brief second, she was mine! Her breasts again, the curve of her hips, the miniscule dot of pubic hair which my imagination magnified with telescopic vision, and I was lost in the primeval forest!
* * *
The next day I was at my typewriter, gazing out the window, daydreaming. Ol’ Pops’ six-pack was on his fire escape. Conchita’s little brother was throwing pebbles down at a derelict on the sidewalk. The old Italian butcher lady was leaning on her pillow on the window sill.
I was drifting in languor, floating aimlessly, when She opened the curtains and appeared at her window. I felt as if we already knew each other, as if we had long been friends and were already intimate. Had we really not met? It was hard to believe. Without meaning to, I stared, and was startled to realize she was staring back. Our eyes met for an unbearable second.
I stood and opened my window to have one less barrier between us. She climbed up onto her radiator, trying to unstuck her venetian blinds. She wrestled with them and lost her balance. The slats rained down on her as she fell back to the floor inside. How embarrassing! She got up and snuck a glance at me. I was shamelessly staring at her every move and she knew I was watching. She was showing off. What to do?
I put a record on the turntable and turned up the volume, kind of sending her an audio smoke signal. When I took it off, she picked up an album and put it on her stereo. I could hear faint strains of return music from her apartment. She walked back and forth in front of her window, throwing glances at me. I threw her a little wave. She waved back. In a state of excitement, I climbed out onto my fire escape landing. Ol’ Pops was watching from his window. Conchita was lounging in her nightgown at her window. The butcher lady was waiting for my next move.
Out on the fire escape, I was keeping my eyes away from her, pretending I was watching the street. But when I glanced in her direction, she had come out onto her fire escape. I was thrilled when our eyes met again.
“Hey! Hi! What’s your phone number?” I shouted across the street.
She shook her head no. But what an idiot I am! She couldn’t just shout her number to me. Every stud on the block and who knows what weirdoes would be calling her up.
“Hey! I’ll give you my number. You can call me.” I mimed holding a receiver to my ear and dialing, and pointed at myself.
She shook her head no again, but with a nice smile. Maybe next time.
She climbed back into her apartment. I climbed back into mine and sat at my typewriter. She had left her window open and her lights on, an unobstructed view of her bedroom.
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Bowler