Here’s a short story I wrote about ten years ago. Thought I’d share it. Hope you enjoy it if you read it.
“Howard Street and Broadway” by Ernest Hilbert
It was a Saturday, and Nathan Ashbery sauntered around SoHo, a brisk wind-swept day in departing summer. A small white sun fissured clouds that passed across wedges of sky between old warehouses and factories. A restlessness drew him from street to street in the center of the district that had once been an asylum for insolvent painters and sculptors who needed the large spaces. The area was now filled with rows of boutiques and expensive galleries, shops with burnished steel racks of designer sun-glasses. It was his neighborhood, had been for nearly a year by then. Ashbery had been discharged from the army the year before, after spending four years installing and supporting software at an obsolete and nearly deserted infantry training facility in northern Montana. The nights were passed smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee or beer with whoever turned up in the common area, telling pointless stories, reading a spy novel on his bed as the crickets seethed in the humid moonlight out the window and beyond the parade grounds. What he remembered more than anything were flowers that spread over the hills outside the fenced perimeters of the base. Wildflowers grew over the hillside and lit up yellow, blue, and white in the summer like a thousand stitched clusters on a quilt—starwort, dogbane, iris, loosestrife, stonecrop, snowberry, hyacinth, bittercress, the scent of pollen beautiful, sometimes shocking and almost nauseating.
Once discharged from the army, he felt pulled in no given direction, sensed no magnetic north, and so had no reason to go anywhere, his parents dead, no wife or girlfriend, few friends. An old army connection offered him a job developing websites for a small but well-financed startup on silicon alley in New York City. He had always loved the look of New York in old films, and so he decided to move there, where an uncle had left a floor of a former sail factory to Ashbery’s aunt who in turn insisted that Ashbery use it, he having always been so “handy and good at fixing things up.” He moved in and began renovating the narrow area, painting the high walls a burnt sunset orange, hammering in doors where there were walls and walls where there were none, installing a shower, gradually making the space habitable. It smelled of old wood, tin, and soap. The din of downtown New York seeped in at all hours through the tall, barred windows that faced out onto Howard Street. However much he cleaned, it was always dingy. Soot built up in corners and cracks from some invisible source. He learned to live with the dirt, and he soon came to accept rats whose rare forays into his space were tolerable. One day he even found the front living area populated by orange and white cats that had strode along the building’s ledge from the neighboring sweatshops in search of food and soft couches. When he shooed them, they glanced up languidly and only made for the open windows when he approached swinging a straw broom like a battle axe.
Having reached the eastern limits of SoHo that blustery Saturday, he wandered down the west side of Broadway toward his loft and found himself caught up in a crowd where frenzied vendors lined the sidewalks with old blankets and towels, as they did every weekend, selling whatever they had picked up over the previous week or purchased from fencers that morning before the police swept through at daybreak to disperse the parliament of thieves, fencers, and honest salesmen that gathered on the pavement. Police cars occasionally slowed as they passed and let off chirps from their sirens until the vendors sluggishly gathered up their things with no intention of leaving. None could afford a vendor’s license, but they were the most devoted salesmen. After the police pulled around the corner, the sidewalk marketplace would resume its characteristic buzz. It was impossible to determine where the vendors came from. They certainly weren’t from SoHo, probably not even from Manhattan, but they met in the same place every Saturday and Sunday morning in the summer. Some vendors sold items that were new, obtained directly by whatever means from warehouses and retail stores, but most hoped to sell items that were used, very used, worn down and brushed by wear—baby clothes, chipped tea sets, board games missing vital pieces, Matchbox cars with wheels jammed in place by grains of sand, blow-dryers stuck in the MAX ON mode, blenders without lids, single golf clubs, half decks of cards, dull imitation cavalry swords, felt paintings marred with slits and tears, snapped pencils, year-old magazines, and flowers, flowers patterned on everything, embroidered onto tablecloths, painted onto mirrors, and plastic flowers also, in bunches.
Occasionally the crowd of vendors would break into a scuffle with frantic cries exchanged in Spanish and English slang, fired by a minor incident over a few inches of sidewalk or an unruly child, but the fights ended quickly with renewed bursts of happiness and hugging. The drinking would continue through the day, and the tone was one of friendship and, more importantly, fervent salesmanship. These were real pitchmen, tossing up ballyhoo over scraps and castoffs. Traffic surged past headed for the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Holland Tunnel, trucks grinding gears in the newspaper-blown haze, busses squealing to stop as crowds poured onto the street.
Still stunned from a late night of cocaine and vodka that had run into the morning with some friends from work, too empty-headed to read the paperback copy of George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier purchased for a dollar at a folding table on Grand Street, Ashbery just glanced and gazed at the scene of robust commerce. Car and bus exhaust wafted past, and the dripping stink of dumpster garbage alternated with the splendid burnt smells of sausages crisping on small black grills and peanuts roasting in hot oil pools on steel drums. One vendor, wearing powder-blue Tequila-splotched sweat-pants and a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt, had only three items on his gold edge-chewed cloth, but his offerings intrigued Ashbery more than others that day: a half-smoked pack of Marlboro reds, a blank audio cassette that had been unspooled in tangles and knots of quarter-inch brown tape, and a thick white instruction manual for a Texas Instruments computer that must have been fifteen years old then, in the first year of Clinton’s second term in the White House. It was as if the vendor knew something that no one else did. It seemed as if the three choices he presented could be part of a ruse or challenge from ancient fable. Which strange cipher should one choose, and why? The vendor fully intended to sell the items; it was just a matter of patience and negotiating skills, time. He stood there with his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels like a mischievous cartoon animal, content to be in the sun and to be drunk on a Saturday afternoon with his friends. The vendors all knew one another, it seemed, in the great revelry of drunkenness and free economy that stretched the length of the block and fluxed over onto the side streets where more furtive proceedings occurred, pisses poured on dumpsters, bottles sucked, joints lit.
Ashbery realized that he had been staring, not at the vendor but at his display, wondering how he hoped to sell any of his trinity of objects, but it was impolite and so he moved on, back to his empty loft in a century-old building—now also home to a Chinatown garment warehouse, a photography studio, and a rock band that never managed to thresh its way through to the end of a single song without stopping—a cast iron façade graffiti-scribbled and faded. Once through the immense black steel door and up the fun-house stairs tilted to the side by the building’s sag, he opened his door and interrupted a crew of well-fed rats scampering around the small kitchen, dragging the last of a loaf of bread off the counter. They scattered, leaving the plastic bag and bread perforated with teeth-marks. He had intended to dunk the stale bread into a can of Grand Union black bean soup that night. It was warmer inside. The high ceilings had trapped the summer air that had flumed through the window the past few months. He tossed some wilted flowers on the deep window ledge into a trash bag. They had been left in the apartment a month before, and he had no idea who had left them. He played a loud rock CD and napped on the couch for a few hours, fading off to wailing guitars, the sporadic honk and clatter of the Saturday street through the windows.
He woke to the acid kick of hunger and the fumbling attempts of the band upstairs stay together to the end of a song. Again, the drums leaned off kilter, the bass thumped a few wrong notes and slowed, and the whole mess ground to a halt. He grabbed his keys and headed out again onto the crowded urine-stinking street, heading up Broadway to a Cuban restaurant where he regularly had a plate of rice and beans for two dollars. The sun had passed over and now shone on the east side of the street, leaving the vendors in chilly shadows. He again passed the vendor with the powder blue sweat-pants. As he passed, Ashbery noticed that the computer manual was gone, replaced by a pair of dentures. They looked like they might still have been wet. He must have made a deal of some sort that day. “Hey, my friend, take a look. What do you like?” A pair of dentures didn’t even seem a strange thing to be selling that day, as the summer ended and a new cold came in across the rivers. It could have been worse, and the mornings of frost and rain were coming on again, so Ashbery lingered and allowed his gaze settle on the half-empty pack of stale Marlboro reds. Sensing a sale, the vendor sprang into action.
“A superb choice, my friend!”
Ashbery smiled, slightly startled. “What’s that?”
“This man wants the cigarettes,” the vendor proclaimed loudly to the whole street, “and they’re just a dollar today!”
“Ah, well . . .”
“You won’t regret it, my friend. I know you won’t regret it.”
After a moment’s pause, Ashbery slid four quarters from his jeans pocket and slinked them into the vendor’s hand.
“Now, you will need a light. My cousin can help you. Loupe!”
The vendor called over a skinny, sparsely-bearded man who arranged a deal for a half-full purple LAS VEGAS lighter for just fifty cents more as the sun clipped through a cloud to brighten the cement and cast shadows behind the buses and make Ashbery feel like a hundred years or a hundred dollars wouldn’t have been too much to ask for a yellow umbrella and a field of flowers and a square of sidewalk to stand in while the sun was still out.