LEAVING WEST 96TH STREET
I kept going to my job at a rare books dealer three days a week. I realized I would have to vacate the apartment before I found new lodgings. That meant that I would go to Sarah with the bare necessities, and put the rest in storage.
There were my photographs and my cameras about which I was particularly concerned. Agnes had seemed to have some designs on my photo equipment, and I had shown her a lot of shots in my collection. I din't want to risk losing them in the move, and I didn't want to bring them with me to Sarah's. So I called Carl, of Seltzer sound, and asked if I could leave those things in a safe place at his studio for a few weeks. He accepted without enthusiasm and was a bit grumpy as if he was doing me a favor reluctantly. I promised that I would retrieve my property as soon as I had found a new place and during the first week of august moved my belongings to a mini-storage on 138th street and Riverside Drive.
I had picked-up some movers' number from a flyer in the neighborhood. They had sounded agreeable on the phone. I had said it was a light job that wouldn't take long. Two men would be enough. Of course, they were unlicensed. I couldn't afford the legit companies. When they showed up, there were three of them and they looked like the opposite of Jessie's. They looked downright dangerous. First the apparent leader asked if he could make a call and spent the next fifteen minutes talking in Hebrew in a tense and angry voice, while scrawling figures on the back of an envelope. They spoke Hebrew between the three of them. Their truck was huge, old and dirty, with signs of flammable liquid and caustic substances on its back and sides. They worked extremely slowly and I was to pay them almost $18 per hour each. When everything was loaded it was dark. They wanted me to sit between them in the cabin. I refused and took the door seat. The man next to me seemed to press himself against me deliberately. I could feel his bones.
Instead of taking Amsterdam Ave straight north, the driver took some back streets and drove at a snail's pace. I knew he was doing this to charge me to death but I was powerless. He took the wrong exit somewhere on the West Side Highway and at one time we were in a dark and deserted parking spot, among warehouses, with the highway a hundred feet above us. If they had wanted to rape me I couldn't have opposed them. The driver said he was lost and we drove around wasting my time and my money until finally we reached the storage building.
It took amost two hours to unload my stuff into my cubicle. When one of the movers told me the truck was empty, I came upstairs to check. The door was already locked with a combination lock. I asked the man to open it up, which he did reluctantly and sure enough, there was one of my cartons. I asked why he hadn't unloaded that one and he said that they wanted to keep it in case I didn't pay them. He took it out and brought it to my cubicle. In the elevator between minus 4 and the ground floor, they asked for money, encircling me menacingly. I told them I had brought my bank card and that if they drove me to a cash machine I would pay them. They looked very angry. The drive back was speedy and on Broadway in the 90's I asked the driver to stop. I think I paid them $260 and they insisted with threat in their voices, that I give them a $20 tip each. I protested that they had been very slow and that the money I was giving them was tax free, but still I gave an extra twenty. One of the men snatched it from me and looked at me as if I was ripping them off. Every time I had complained about their slow pace, the driver had told me that it wasn't nice of me to complain. It had been a horrendous experience but at least my stuff was locked safely. Now all I had to do was go to Sarah's with my summer clothing, my guitar and my parakeet.
AT SARAH'S APARTMENT
Sarah was a small Russian-Jewish woman in her fifties, with long auburn hair tied tight into a pony tail. She used to be a club owner back in Paris. That's how I met her. She had a beautiful club in Paris Marais, located in an ancient catacomb built during the Templiers' persecutions in the 1500's. Several stone- built rooms, communicated by archways and steps. She had live music, good food and drink, and was open until 5am. When I was in my live-music consumer days, I had frequently ended up the night with Patato there. It was also a rather easy place to do drugs.
Then she sold The Chevaliers du Temple to move near St Michel into another cave which she fixed very nicely. But the clientele didn't follow as expected and when I left to New York, business was very slow.
Then one night in New York, six or seven years later, I was with Patato who was going to play in a restaurant on 6th Ave and she walked in. Ever since that night we had been in touch, mostly by telephone but also occasional meetings in town. Her business had failed and she had left many creditors behind.
Sarah had this effusive, quasi maternal attitude which she laced with little put downs. I believed that the put-downs were unintentional. After I had moved into her apartment, I would feel terribly insecure when she said she thought that Jimmy was soon returning from tour. Then the day after she would say that he would stay away another week. I kept looking for lodging. There had been an ad for several days in the "furnished rooms" section of the New York Times, that captioned MUSICIANS as preferred tenants. Well I'm a musician. It's not every day that a landlord seeks musicians for tenants.
One night Carl called to say that he wanted me to take back the bag of photos and photo equipment which I had left at his studio. He didn't say why, but he sounded annoyed and there was no way to convince him to be a little more patient. So I promised to go and get my stuff the next day and I brought everything to Sarah's apartment.
The furnished rooms for musicians were still being advertised. The building was at 103rd street and Manhattan Ave. I had an appointment with Nancy at 2pm. When I reached the door, there was neither a doorman nor a buzzer. You needed a key to get in and nobody was around to open the door on their way in or out. I knocked and got no answer. After a few vain attempts I returned to Sarah's.
I kept reading the ads for furnished rooms and visited a few. The ad that said MUSICIANS was still there. I decided that I would take the room for the time being, even though, as a single white blond female, I would not blend with the local population. I called again and made another appointment with Nancy who mentioned our missed appointment as if I were responsible.
19 W103RD STREET
This time I could get in and sat down in front of her at the office. She was a garish Puerto-Rican in her twenties who right away called me sweetheart or corazon or mi vida. I said that I was studying music and was looking for a place where I could practice.
Somehow I expected that she would explain why they wanted musician tenants but she eluded the subject.She showed me two rooms on the ground floor and I took the one that had a kitchen for $120 a week. The super made a key from the one she handed him, gave me the copy and returned the original to her.
It was a large and sunny room. It had just been painted light beige and there was a new fake parquet floor covering that undulated in places. The walls were full of nail holes but in the state of anxiety and near panic I had lived in since May 31st, they seemed to be bullet holes the first evening I spent there and I was scared. A sweet smell of filth lingered atop the smells of new things.
The windows opened on Manhattan avenue. Hispanics and blacks of all ages were hanging out, some playing dominoes on folding tables, with the radio playing "musica tipica". Children were playing around, where 103rd street was closed to traffic and where the Frederic Douglass project started. A piragua vendor was shaving his thinning ice block under an umbrella and pouring syrups in vivid colors. This was a peaceful view that reassured me. There was a kind of dry moat seven feet wide whose bottom was at basement level, which separated the building from the sidewalk, with an iron railing alongside it. Two of the three windows had an iron gate.
I made a few trips to the storage room and brought a few more essentials. I didn't want to bring everything until I was sure that it was safe enough. Every time I passed the corner of 103rd I looked at the sign and wondered if there was any connection with the number 13.
I spoke Spanish with the handyman and the super. The handyman was flirtatious from the start but I had no interest. Then he offered to come to my place after work and bring some cocaine. I had given up the stuff a few months earlier but I accepted. After two lines he asked if I didn't think that the light was too bright. I said yes, that's right and I lit a softer light and asked him to leave before he would move to the next manoeuvre.
My neighbor was a young Dominican. On the second night of my arrival, I realized that he was a crackhead. He would return late at night and start ranting and repeating the same things ad infinitum. I understood he was often saying "Tu maldita madre" in intonations that changed every time. Sometimes he would hit the wall with his fists. He hit so hard that the wall between his room and mine cracked and became wobbly. He would also hurl the furniture around. He destroyed his door twice. One morning during the first week of my stay, the landlord knocked on his door. Through the peephole I saw that he showed my neighbor something in the palm of his hand and asked him : "What do you think it is? Do you think it's cocaine? My neighbor looked and said he thought it was. The landlord said that Nancy had left it in the desk drawer. When I went out later, the super told me that Nancy had been fired.
When I was home I put the parakeet's cage on the windowsill. He enjoyed the animation of the street and the light. One evening, I was going to pull him inside when I saw a big waterbug on the floor between me and the window. I was repulsed and stayed away, waiting for it to go away. I didn't and I moved back to my book. When I returned five minutes later, the waterbug was gone. Gone also were the cage and the bird with it.
However I decided to stay. I had been imprudent to leave the bird on the windowsill, it was my fault. Someone had reached through the 7 feet between the sidewalk and the window and snatched my bird but I had tempted them, I had asked for it.
I emptied the storage room and brought everything in. Sarah had kept in touch, always asking questions of minute details. I told her I would invite her over when my place was more comfortable. Although I didn't feel like it, I felt I owed her something and it would be only natural to show her my place after she had helped me out.Little by little things were finding their place. I practiced the guitar not as much as time permitted. I felt guilty for wasting my time, for instance on my days off, I would do anything but play and I had to really push myself in the evening to practice at least one hour.
Sometimes I could only stare at the guitar, unable to cross the space between her and me and to grab her by the neck. One evening as I returned home from work, I found Pat, my now Chicagoan guitar teacher, waiting for me at the door. I had informed him of my move and given him my address, but I was disagreeably surprised. I felt it was a bit cavalier of him to come unannounced. I was still in a state of tense alertness and during the first seconds I wasn't sure whether he was friend or foe. We had had a brief affair that ended when he returned to Chicago with just a few days notice. He didn't like my place, he said he wouldn't live there. He made me afraid when he said I would be lucky if the heating worked, and he expressed fear about walking in the neighborhood. Since he was so tiny, I thought it was natural for him to be more afraid than I was. He expected to have sex but I declined. He had left me after all, and I had suffered for a while with the feeling of let-down and didn't want any more intimacy with him. Besides it was a bit ridiculous for me to pair up with a man ten years younger and twenty inches shorter than me.
We played the numbers he had taught me. I was playing rhythm and he improvised. I felt he was taking advantage of me, not playing the melody as written even once, and not giving me a chance to comp, then he left.
THE THEFT OF MY PHOTOGRAPHS
One night in November, I was in the neighborhood shopping when I realized that I didnt' have my keys with me. I felt myself turn deadly white and returned in haste to the building. I had to ask the handyman to open the front door and the wing door for me. My bunch of keys was hanging on my door. Was I going crazy?
A few days later, I called Sarah and invited her to come over. I explained to her how to get there and we agreed on the date and time, some day during the week. The day after I called her, as I returned from work, a feeling that something horrible had happened grabbed me when I entered my room. Everything looked normal however and I tried to blame the feeling on my high-strung state. As the evening progressed, the feeling was getting worse. Suddenly I got up from my bed and went to the cabinet where I stored my photographs. I opened the carton and saw that one of the two accordion files where I kept prints and negatives was missing.
Since Agnes'visit, I had had the feeling she was after my photos and I had tried everything to protect them. Carl had forced me to remove them from his studio where they were safe, and Agnes had finally managed to steal them. Not by armed robbery as I had thought, but by bribing someone on the staff.
I told the super what had happened. He looked embarrassed, said it wasn't him, that he had a family and that he didn't want to risk losing his job by committing such indiscretions. He didn't know who could have done it. But it could only be someone who had access to my key, and I suspected the handyman, whose advances I had spurned, for being the culprit. Since the night we had done a few lines and I had sent him on his way, he had avoided to look me in the eyes. Maybe revenge was the motif.
I reported the incident to the police but they were uninterested. They asked me to put a dollar value on a collection of photographs I had assembled over a two year period. I talked to the landlord about the incident and cried the whole time of the interview. He didn't offer to help me find who had done it. Later that day, he came to my room and told me that he had another room for rent in another building, as if it were a solution to my problem. His tone was pressing, as if he were urging me to move. But I explained that I had just moved in and didn't want to be like a fugitive. He seemed irritated and disappointed that I didn't take his advice, and he could not insist anymore without looking suspicious.
So I stayed put, thinking that now that it had happened, I was safer than before, and consoling myself with the thought that my favorite photos were in the file that had not been stolen. However some very good ones were now in someone's tainted hands. I called Sarah and left a message on her machine saying that if she didn't return my photos within a week, I would put an ad in the French Press telling where she lives. But I had no proof, only a hunch, since the theft happened the day after I had given her my address and how-to-get-there explanations.
HARASSMENT AT WORK
The situation at work was going from bad to worse. I worked at the second floor rare books dealer on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 10 to 6, not in the beautiful space where books were lining the walls and displayed in a glass case, but in the neon-lit backroom with its warehouse shelves, its frayed carpeting underneath the desk chair, its catalogues, refence books, check books, ledgers and computers.
Jim, the owner, was gross beyond belief. He would take a shit and leave the toilet door open so that the smell spread all over the office. I was paid nine dollars per hour on the books, and an additional four off the books.
Tim, the assistant, who was in charge of cataloguing the books and billing them was harassing me in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Often he reeked of vodka at 10 in the morning and behaved in a drunken way but I didn't dare say anything. He would arrive at the office and realize he didn't have his keys to open up the store, so he took a cab home and returned an hour later without showing any embarrassment nor making any apology.
Once, on a Tuesday, I typed a long appraisal and ended the day by checking and double checking the totals at the bottom of these long columns. When I returned on Thursday, I would only have to type the cover letter, print the whole thing and send it off. The recipient of the appraisal, an executor of some estate, called to say that there was a mistake in the totals. I said I was going to check, correct it and sent the amended page. The matter was no big deal between me and the recipient. I took the mistake as of my own doing, but with equanimity. After all everybody makes mistakes. However I had so carefully checked my figures that it was hard to believe. But Tim and Jim berated me and inflated the incident out of proportions. I understood that Tim had messed up my work during the day I was off and by making me appear careless, would deter me from asking for more money. It was the time after I had brought many improvements in the work, that saved time not only for myself but for Jim and Tim as well. I had achieved the complete computerization of the sales and payments records, which rendered the manual system obsolete. There was no longer any need to enter every transaction in a ledger and in the computer.
I had had to bring my personal problems to the office, for instance the theft of my photographs, and after Agnes'visit I refused to take calls from my family.
When I called to say I wouldn't come to work because of the theft of my photographs, Jim offered me to move to an apartment which he rented in the East 50's, near a tunnel. Tim told me when I came to work tomorrow, I should bring my favorite possessions and put them in Jim's apartment before moving completely. So the following day I came to work with my guitar. After work Jim took me in his car to the apartment. It was a nice one bedroom in a walkup. I left my guitar on the couch and he gave me a set of keys, saying that I could change the locks if I wanted to. However I wondered why he was being so helpful, considering the tension there was between us.
Once home I felt lost without my guitar. I didn't see myself move to that place. What if things got real bad between me and Jim? I would lose the apartment then. Later during the evening I realized that this offer of his was more self-serving than helpful. The apartment was rent-stabilized and he paid only $300 per month for it. He wanted to keep it for when his 8 year old son needed it, maybe ten years in the future. In the meantime, he lived in dread of losing it. If it could be proved that nobody lived there, he would lose it. And if someone at the building management slipped a note under the door and he didn't answer in a timely fashion, that would be the proof that the apartment was not lived in. So twice a week he would go to that apartment just to check. He had some mail sent there just to make believe that the apartment was occupied. So he offered me to use the apartment only to solve his problem. When I said that after all I would not move there, and that I was going to retrieve my guitar, Jim asked me to bring the mail. When I handed it to him, he asked if there had been any note slipped under the door.
Tim spoke French and I was never sure whose side he was on. Several times he arrived at the store at 10am and declare that he had forgotten the store keys at home so he took a cab back home and returned, which took about one hour and a half. I would wait for him in a coffee shop and would charge my time anyway.
LAST DAYS AT JAMES CUMMINS'
One day Tim was cataloguing the travel diary of French explor- er Dumont d'Urville. He asked for my help in reading a handwrit- ten note so as usual I obliged. I was paid $9 per hour but that didn't prevent him to take advantage of my knowledge of French, German and Spanish which was worth much more than that. There was a reference to an ox-nerve as a weapon. That was the same unusual weapon my father carried under his car seat. I felt very unseasy while Tim smiled at me innocently. It was not the first time that he made a reference to my family through some books. I was begin- ning to suspect that Tim spoke with my family on the days I wasn't in.
Sometimes when I arrived at work, he would say that my mother had called the day before. Since my mother knew which days I was working, I wondered why she called the days I was off. Maybe she wanted to talk with Tim and not me. Maybe they discussed new ways to harass me and drive me to quit. Anyway Tim was letting me know that he talked with my mother after I had told him following the theft of my photographs in early December, that I didn't want to talk to her.
In March 90, Jim hadn't paid me the off the books part for two months and yelled each time I was asking for it. It amounted to about $250. Finally one day I didn't show up for work, and decided I would not return. I had to leave my job to salvage my dignity.
The Amnesia Memoirs now move back to the immediate past, the summer of 1993. To follow the chronological order, one must go to the Memoirs of a Marked Woman,
Part One, which start with the loss of my job, a slight overlap. They were written in late 1998 to early 1999, three years after full recovery from the amnesia. But to keep the mental and emotional framework of a text written under partial amnesia where the central piece of the puzzle is missing, one must make the three years leap.
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