Promises and Bullshit
My piece-of-shit ’63 Belair coughed and died just as I exited Route 4 onto the apron of my old man’s favorite AMOCO station where his buddy, the mechanic Abie, was supposed to give me fifty bucks for it. It was my old man’s latest ‘big deal’—I didn’t need the car anymore and Abie’s fifty bucks would hold me for a few days while I got myself ‘launched’ in the city. What could be better?
“Find Abie,” he told me, “He’ll take care of you. Look for Abie and tell him I sent ya. He’ll know the deal.”
The Belair’s final cough was almost lady-like, more like a sigh, and its dying spasm a petit mal seizure in the transmission hump that didn’t amount to much either, but when you own a car for a few years you get to a point where you can tell. Chevy built the V6-powered Belair to be a cheaper alternative to its bigger, sportier, V8-powered Impala. The Impala was a man’s car, my old man said, the Belair something less.
Abie and his station were my old man’s current favorite; the latest in a long line of gas stations—and, while we’re at it, restaurants, Seven-11s, candy stores, pet shops, dry cleaners, etc.—where he would get to know the owner, run up a tab, concoct some kind of a beef about the bill, and run out on him. And on to the next. There were hundreds of service stations to choose from scattered all over Jersey. He and Abie passed hours with my old man’s constantly-dribbling monster Caddie up on the lift, poking around under her skirts, examining and discussing her immodestly-exposed underparts. Abie with his burnt-out cigar stub, a pair of name-embroidered coveralls filled with basketballs, my old man in a slick suit, his only suit, he was careful not to soil.
I let the dead Belair coast across the apron and braked to a stop outside the middle service bay. The ashtray overflowed and there were empty beer cans stuffed under the front seat. Abie ducked out from under a Valiant and came over to eyeball the Belair. I didn’t know what to tell him; I was hoping he’d just reach in his pocket and hand over the fifty bucks and be done with it. No such luck.
“Pull it into that slot over there,” he hollered over the racketing highway, indicating a space in a row of beaters that overlooked a ditch full of old tires. Of course I couldn’t get it to start. I knew it wouldn’t. Abie got in and tried it a couple of times—What does a twenty-year-old know about turning a key in an ignition anyway?—and got the same results, or lack thereof.
We talked—hollered. All anybody did there all day was holler over the traffic, there was no such thing as normal conversation. I explained I was in a hurry; I was moving to New York. Today was the day.
I was gonna be a writer.
My father had made a thorough dog’s breakfast of everything, his whole stupid life, and I was sick of supporting him and the whole family while they sat around ‘between jobs’ watching Jeopardy! and Hollywood Squares all day and daydreaming of their upcoming failures. I was sick of my mother asking, “What the hell are you gonna write about anyway?” and having no answer. Sick of turning my paycheck over to her every week, dealing shit-grade weed on the side to have a little cash for myself—girls and beer and cigarettes and such. I didn’t tell Abie any of this, I knew he didn’t give a shit.
Abie opened negotiations by making it clear he didn’t want the car at all if I couldn’t get it to start.
“Look, I’ll givya ten bucks for it,” he said, “and that’s only ‘cause yer Dad’s a buddy and I feel sorry for ya.”
“How about twenty-five,” I said, figuring a good negotiator always opens by splitting the difference. What made me think I was a negotiator was another story.
“Whaddaya nuts?” he said, unsticking the cigar butt from his lips and waving it around, “Ten bucks is already more than the Goddamned thing’s worth and besides yer old man, he owes me thirty-two-seventy-five for parts and labor from last time. That was the arrangement. You’re lucky yer gettin’ anything at this point.”
“Fifty bucks minus what yer old man owes me,” he said, “And that was for a working car, a car that starts at least.”
“Fuck,” I said.
“You dint know? I thought you knew.”
After a couple more minutes I knuckled under, I took the ten bucks and helped him push the Belair into the designated slot in the row where it would stand with the rest of his ten-dollar charity-cases, presumably until it rotted. I signed the back of the pink slip and it was his.
So much for my old man’s big deal.
Standing in front of Abie’s AMOCO wasn’t the greatest spot to try to snag a ride; no exit ramp or shoulder to pull over on, diesel- and methedrine-fueled eighteen-wheelers going seventy-five, but pretty quickly a dinky little Falcon pulled over—an overgrown crustacean, little more than a brittle aqua carapace over spindly suspension. A middle-aged couple who seemed pretty cool, if only by dint of picking up the ragamuffin likes of me.
I only had one bag—a leather-turning-to-dust physician’s valise containing a pair of jeans, a tee-shirt, flannel shirt, socks and sneakers, an exact match to what I was wearing under my ex-girlfriend-embroidered denim jacket—which I threw in the backseat and tumbled in behind.
I turned to signal some sort of half-snotty tootle-loo to Abie but he was back under the Valiant; a nod was as good as a wink at that point. The ten-dollar-paying bastard would find out about my father soon enough, I figured, which would be retribution enough. He didn’t need my help.
There was little conversation in the aqua Falcon, the Watergate hearings blared over the traffic from the tinny dashboard radio.
“This fucker’s really something, this guy,” the driver said, pointing at the speaker and looking at me over his shoulder, asking for confirmation. He had a Grizzly Adams beard, the kind guys that age grew in those days to broadcast to the world how hep they were.
I nodded; I couldn’t hear anything all the way in the back like that, what with the trucks and all.
The woman turned the radio down with a scowl to her husband for his inconsideration and said, “So, work? School? Vacation?” She pointed at the valise.
“Work,” I said, “Or at least I’ll be looking for a job. School sort of fell through. NYU.”
That was a good one, ‘fell through.’ After years of promises and bullshit, the old man had told me there was nothing in the tank. He hadn’t saved a dime. He was waiting for his mother to die and leave us a pot of money.
“Apparently the old bitch is immortal,” he said.
The little car got me as far as the toll plaza. It was turning left—North—up Route 9, heading for the New York/ New Jersey border; pick-your-own orchards, farm stands, the kinds of places middle-agers get a bang out of. To save bus fare, I lugged my valise across the George Washington Bridge, looking down at the near-dead river, walked up a series of ramps and switchback stairs and into the bus terminal. I was in New York.
I’d lived in the city once before, for about six months in Spanish Harlem, near Columbia, before the Embroiderer of Denim decided she no longer needed nor wanted my company and I’d had to return to supporting Dear Old Mom and Dad.
Not this time.
I rode the escalator down into the bowels of the city, jumped the turnstile, hopped on the A train and roared and rattled halfway down one of its longer intestines to the 4th Street station. Up the stairs and out onto the sidewalk and I was in the Village, the place I believed I’d been destined to live for as long as I could remember, as long as I could believe. I stopped and inhaled the bosomy summer air and the soft sunlight struck me. Different air from where I’d come from, different sunlight. I started up West 4th St, away from the city-thrum of 6th Ave and into the quiet of the neighborhood, toward my new apartment, fifth floor of a rickety six-story walk-up with the bathroom in the hall. A chair, a mattress on the floor. A portable black-and-white TV. A firetrap with no fire escapes out the back, looking out onto an airless airshaft with no way out except up. Someone had paid someone off, obviously. The super had wanted me to grease him with a couple hundred clams before he’d cough up the keys; corruption everywhere. I’d given him my last two twenties along with a solemn promise to pay him the remainder later. My old man would’ve been proud of my promises and bullshit routine.
Before I reached my building I changed my mind and pivoted to cross into Washington Square Park. Hundreds of people doing all kinds of different stuff out in the different sun we all shared; overlapping music playing every few yards, a boombox, a drum circle, pipers, singers, a lone trumpeter playing ‘Round Midnight.’ I already felt a part of it, or at least that I could become part of it.
I turned down 8th St and spotted a Help Wanted sign in the window of a big bookstore and walked in and said, “Who do I talk to about the job?” A guy wearing a stretched-out Tao tee-shirt and stoned eyes went in the back and came back out. “Here’s an application, fill all this shit out best you can. The boss’ll be out in a few.” On his chin he’d grown five or six hairs. I had a pen in my valise, being, after all, a writer.
The place was intimidating. All the clerks looked like they had IQs equal to twice mine and knew stuff I never dreamed of knowing. In the middle of the store they’d hung a banner that said MEET THE AUTHOR, and under it sat a weedy-looking guy behind a table with a stack of books and a couple of ballpoint pens on it. A glass of water. Two or three people slouched around in front of the table, clutching books, as if waiting for something else to happen.
I sat in the little fifth-grader’s chair, chrome and plastic, one arm a desk, in the children’s corner, probably being pegged for a pervert the whole time, and looked at the blankness of the application. I read it through and filled it out neatly and clearly.
Being my father’s son, I embellished, said I was a junior at NYU studying philosophy, said I’d worked at the Rutgers bookstore before transferring, but only where necessary to get the job, no more. Certainly less than my father would’ve, sonofabitch always behind on the mortgage, always guys in ties and topcoats banging on the door. All his endless bullshit and promises, promises and bullshit. Maybe I only had ten bucks in my jeans, more like eight-and-change at that point after a pack of Pall Malls and a Milky Way, but I was going to make enough by the end of the month to pay the rent on my apartment and on time, and every time, after that.
And there’d be no more going back home, not this time. No more supporting the old man bouncing from job to job, scam to scam. Yes, I’ll be the new guy, but the new guy the world needs to keep a sharp eye on. No, I will not fail again. This time I’m gonna cash my paycheck and buy me a typewriter and some paper. And I’m gonna start. Write me a novel, win me a big prize. Sit back in this very bookstore and watch the crowd shuffle their feet, lining up, waiting to get their books signed.
Fuck you, Abie and your ten bucks. Fuck you, old man and your no tuition money, your waiting for your mother to die.
I’m the guy to see now. I don’t find you anymore, I don’t go looking for anyone. You want me? Find me. You’ll know where; it’ll be in all the papers.
Get out the spotlights, strike up the band; you’re gonna need ‘em. Real soon. I mean real soon.
Byron Spooner is the author of Rounding Up a Bison: Stories (Andover Street Archives Press, 2021). He is retired as the Literary Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library where for many years he produced literary events. He founded and edited The Readers Review, the Friends’ literary blog, where he wrote about books, music, film and bookselling. His writing has been published widely on a variety of platforms. He served on the San Francisco Poet Laureate Nominating Committee and the One City, One Book Selection Committee of the SFPL and on the Boards of Litquake, California Public Library Advocates and the Advisory Board of the Beat Museum. He is also an adventurer, a naturalist and a partner in Andover Street Archives, brokering literary and cultural archives to university libraries. From 1982 to 1996 he owned and operated Books Revisited, an award-winning outlaw bookstore in San Rafael, California. Back in the seventies he was a founder, editor and writer of The Paper Tiger, the underground newspaper of the New Jersey Student Union. He lives with his wife, writer Judith Ayn Bernhard, in San Francisco. Visit his website HERE.