The Night Owl of West 12 Street
by Miss Rosen
and end your problems.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20
Jimmy sits at the front desk, perched like an owl seeking a mouse. Eager. Hungry. Wanting. Needing his fill. He glances out the glass doors, looking up and down the block, hoping for something—anything—to occur. He watches as the wind blows and some young punk slinks along, walking quickly down the street with his chin tucked into his chest.
Nothing to see here, folks. Keep it moving.
Jimmy wants action, adventure, the (melo)drama of daily life. He feeds on the theater of the unconscious. The complexities of the humanity fascinate and disturb. Jimmy is a voracious voyeur, satisfying his appetite by working as a night porter at an apartment building on West 12 Street. He knows everyone’s business. People in this place are snitching—on themselves. They come downstairs, in the middle of the night, drunk and high, stoned and lonely souls. They hang out at the desk when they come back from clubs, or failed dates, or their parents are out of town, or their wives are away on business trips and they cannot be alone.
So many apartments, people are always moving in and out, new tenants, sublets, dogs, children, divorces, new wives, stepchildren, elderly parents, relatives from out of town, the list goes on. It has gotten to be like a hotel, with regulars. Same old folk are sitting in overstuffed chairs at the center of the lobby, watching the parade through the glass-paneled wall that overlooks the street. Same old white guy in the green flack jacket smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee from a mug by the parking sign at the gutter; he just had a baby and doesn’t want to smoke in the house.
By befriending the tenants, Jimmy has gained access to a wealth of knowledge, gossip, intrigue. He would like to say he has heard it all but there’s always more to hear. What he most enjoys are the people who cover their tracks, the people who look one way and live another. Appearances, they do deceive. What is beneath the surface, that’s Jimmy’s area of expertise. He knows that the leather queens on the eighteenth floor are men of their word. He knows how the drunk on the second floor got that way. He left his suburban home and moved down to the Village, hoping to erase himself. But that didn’t happen. Now he wanders around the streets wearing middle management suits that haven’t been cleaned in years. Flies gather around him, just like they do in the comics. Jimmy knows how the young lady on seventeen had three abortions. He knows how the teenager on fourteen lost his virginity. He knows that the old woman in the penthouse is a lesbian. Well, that’s not a secret but she’s from the old school where female companions were not spoken of as romantic partners. He knows that when her companion died twelve years ago, the old lady stopped circulating in the world. Now she sits at the top of the building, alone with no children, no family, no love in her life. She is a success but what of it? What are knowledge and treasures without someone with whom to share?
For a very long time, Jimmy was on his own, doing what he wanted to do until he got caught up. He used to think the best thing in life is party and bullshit; he makes the sign of the cross and sends one up to Biggie Smalls (Rest in Peace Christopher Wallace). But when his son was born, Jimmy became a man. He understood what it meant to love someone else. From that day forward, he knew the truth: this was ’til death do us part. Ain’t no one else ever came close.
Yea, Jimmy got married. He knew, That’s the thing to do. Ain’t no bastards in this world, except the fathers who leave their children and not the other way around.
Once he became a family man, he stopped hitting the clubs and bars but he wouldn’t stay home after dark. Dark is in his blood, flowing through secret channels that make him feel alive. Night is the time the masks come off and the real person finally shows. Give me your tired, your horny, your drunk, Jimmy smiles to himself, thinking about the kooks, the cranks, the oddballs, the nuts, the fruit loops, the wackos, the lunatic fringe that once populated this neighborhood back when he was in high school and he used to come down from the Bronx to shop at Postermat, Unique, Canal Jeans. The girls sneered “Bridge & Tunnel” at him in the clubs but he always got the best of them somewhere around four a.m. That’s when the cocaine was gone and their hair lay flat and their feet hurt and they were tired, horny, and drunk. And when the masks came off, so did their clothes and, truth be told, for all their urbane affectations, they were no different than his girl at home.
So he married his girl and not the clubheads. She was preggo and he needed a gig. Got himself a Union job and a uniform to boot. Sitting at a desk of faux black marble suits Jimmy well. He wears a black suit with white piping and a matching cap, white button-down shirt and black tie. Dig me working in the Vill! he thought when he got the job.
Eight years later, he knows the score. These fancy folk aren’t nearly as high and mighty when you have smelled their dirty laundry up close. And it is that funk, that foul stench that turns his head time and again for there is no greater equal than the sins of Man.
Jimmy drums his fingers across the desk and sighs softly to himself. All he can expect tonight are the husbands coming home after “working late at the office.” These guys, they always have that look on their face. They sing or they mumble, “Goodnight, Jimmy,” but the truth shines bright, like a beacon in the night: I got some and it wasn’t the wife! The glee of getting away with it extinguishes all signs of guilt, if only for the moment, in the victorious afterglow that adultery brings.
Mr. Chestnut, a resident of Apartment 15F, struts into the lobby. He is in his mid-40s, a sales executive at a pharmaceutical company. He has been working closely with douches, explaining to his accounts the beauty of the product. “Women,” he will tell them, “are the weaker sex. They are insecure and needy, that’s why they spend all their money things that they are told will make them attractive to men. No woman needs any of the things she buys and if she stopped to think about it, she would see it’s a vicious cycle designed to destroy her body, mind, and soul.
“Now take these here douches, it’s a goldmine! Women know men smell real bad but men don’t care so guess what, no business deodorizing your balls!” He will pause here for the laughs, which always come. “Now women, we can tell them anything. We can say, ‘Honey, your breasts are too small,’ and the next thing you know, she will go out and buy double D implants. We can tell women, ‘A gentleman prefers blondes,’ and she’ll race to the hairdresser and come back ready to get it on like you’re President Kennedy and she is Marilyn Monroe.”
Having built a confederacy through his series of shallow observations, Mr. Chestnut is ready to let them in on the secret of his success. He will lower his voice to draw them close, speaking in confidence. “But if you really want to keep a woman in the palm of your hand, tell her she smells like the Fulton Street Fish Market.” He will say this with a knowing leer, inviting the hearty guffaws of chauvinism to appear. With these words he ensures that any lingering awkwardness about the subject is replaced by a feeling of mental and physical superiority. And so he continues…
“You know how scared women are that you love their pussy more than their heart?” Heads will nod in confirmation as he throws in this aside, “I mean, you know that’s true, whether they’re your whore or your baby mama. The pussy, it has its rightful place. It is there to serve us, whatever our needs. But in order to keep your woman in check, you’ve got to make her fear that what she has between her legs is worth less than the next chick.
“Now here’s the beauty of the douche—it is actually the cause of that horrible smell! Yes! Imagine that. For a few days, the woman will feel springtime fresh but all douches do is destroy a perfect ecosystem and make way for the germs to invade and funk up that box. Now you may be asking yourself, What does that mean for me? Well, I’ll tell you, buddy, it means she is now a customer for life! This woman is so humiliated and demoralized by the fact that it has been proven that she is filthy animal that she will buy our product in bulk, believing that it is she that is the problem—and not the product itself.”
His smile will light up the room. “And gentlemen, rest assured, our product is FDA tested and approved. This is nothing buy money in the bank. Pure gold.”
The clients will nod in agreement, seeing nothing but green and wanting a piece of the paper that grows thick on the tree. This is why they work in douches—without ironic detachment, I mean.
Striding through the lobby, Mr. Chestnut looks at his watch. It’s late, damn late. Everyone will be asleep, including his wife who has been taking sleeping pills for the past six months right around the time his affair with Sheila, the sales rep from Newark, began.
“Goodnight, Mr. Chestnut,” Jimmy speaks with deference, observing how the tail of his shirt rides out of his pants, silently loathing the way a guy like this gets after-hours ass.
“Goodnight Jimmy,” Mr. Chestnut says before running his fingers through his hair, inadvertently activating the memory of how Sheila had grabbed his head with force just as she came all over his cock. He felt his body heat up into a blush and, with a fever running from his chest up his neck, dampening his armpits and getting him hard all over again. Mr. Chestnut scooted through the lobby to the elevators where he could have a moment to collect himself.
Jimmy watches the rat scurry around the corner with little interest. He is thinking of Mrs. Chestnut. She has four kids, two nannies, and a full time job that keeps her in grey suits and sensible shoes, belying what little remains of her good looks. When they first moved into the building seven years ago, she had smiled the smile that newlyweds share: the joy of discovery, the ecstasy of passion, the pleasure that is found in becoming one with your beloved. Mrs. Chestnut was once possessed with the beauty of innocent youth, a vision of loveliness that lay upon her face like morning dew on a blade of grass. But that dew had long since dried and in its place, a desiccated stalk now lives in with Mr. Chestnut in Apartment 15F.
Is it that she is too busy or too burned out to see the truth? Or is it that she knows what is happening and is agreed to remain in a marriage on these terms? What kind of woman would stand by her man while he stuck it into the kind of woman who sleeps with married men?
But there are plenty of married women who get around like Tupac Shakur. They cover their tracks well, sure to not get caught. Lie, lie, you lie so well, that is the refrain that is sung in silence. They have no guilt for they have no qualms about betraying the vows they made before God. They possess a righteous sense of entitlement, using cheating as a way to privately settle a score. And of their affairs nothing may ever be known by anyone else, not even that the husband is not the father of their child. You know how it goes.
Sometimes Jimmy wondered, What is the point of getting married at all? What does marriage mean when it is based on love, the most fragile emotion of all? Most people look outside themselves, living in a dream. They want so badly to believe appearances are what they seem. But marriage was never meant to be an arrangement based on love. Only love! Love? What is Love? Is it a Deee-lite song? Will that reference lose all meaning after my generation is gone?
Jimmy had love for his wife but he was never in love with her. She never took his breath away when he lay eyes upon her. He never felt his heart pound, his hands grow damp, the butterflies release in his belly at the thought of Her. He knew she was a good woman. He knew she was faithful to him and to God. He knew she would never betray him and she would follow his lead. She allowed him to be the Man, and that’s all that mattered. If you don’t have it all, that’s because it’s not meant to be.
For Jimmy, it was simple. He needed a woman who was willing to lock it down in the eyes of God and the government so that his seed would be cared for until fully grown. Now that he is married, Jimmy tries to be faithful and what that means is he does not go out looking for pussy, but should pussy find him, well… anything is possible. Women today act like men, out to get theirs, no questions asked, not even, Hey baby, you ever had an HIV test? It has gotten to the point where it’s become vulgar, coarse—almost a business transaction—the way we interface with strangers to negotiate the most intimate of terms.
Of course, when the time is right, nothing is wrong.
Marriage hasn’t changed him. Jimmy remains the same. And perhaps that is because he chose a woman to become the mother of his child rather than a woman to be his wife. He’s given up on the idea of True Love. That’s fine for chick flicks and romance novels that lonely girls read on the train. But that’s okay, his son has his mother and his father living together. Inevitably, they’ll get divorced but for now everything is as it should be, a happy compromise.
But Jimmy is no fool and he knows that his working at night is a blanket statement. The ultimate cover up for everything, because come what may it can always be attributed to It was late. It was late, I didn’t mean to wasn’t thinking you know how it is I haven’t slept I’m just so tired I couldn’t think didn’t think didn’t mean it c’mon baby don’t be like that
Jimmy has had girls smoke him up on his breaks. He has had girls invite him back to their crib and one woman was so bold as to offer a blowjob under the desk. While he was on duty. In the dead of night. And she was sober, mind you. She knew what she liked. But he refused, graciously. If there was one thing he wasn’t going to risk was his job for an orgasm. Leave that to the President, please.
And it’s strange but whenever he refuses women that seems to make them like him more, and he wish he had known this when he was in high school, because it would have gone a lot better if he didn’t have to work as hard. But maybe this is karma and maybe he’s due a little dividend, so these days he is treated like something special by the women of this building, some of whom get up at four a.m. because they are old and cannot sleep and they make him a pot of fresh coffee and bring it down to him at five and chat before he gets off at six.
“To get you home safe and sound” they say with a twinkle in the eye and rollers in the hair before they beat a quiet retreat back upstairs. And so it is that he has got it good. He loves his chair, his desk, his nest, Jimmy, the night owl of West Twelfth Street.
“Good evening, Miss Fontaine,” he says, springing to his feet as Jade walks through the glass doors. He has always liked this girl though he is not sure why. There’s something about her attitude, her posture, her presence that catches his eye like a fish on a hook, dangling helplessly, caught by an illusion he cannot name.
Jade has a regal way of carrying herself, as though she were an old Hollywood film star. She holds her chin just so as she sweeps through a room, barely making eye contact as though everyone is invisible. Her stride is such that it could be described as a long legged gait, except Jade isn’t particularly tall, maybe five-five or five-six, but she casts a shadow as long as the Empire State Building.
At the same time, it is clear from what he has glimpsed of her habits that she cares for nothing, including herself; it is almost as though she is hell bent for leather and eternal damnation, which ever comes first.
Jade lifts her eyes at the sound of Jimmy’s voice and looks deep into his own. Her face is swollen and red, and her voice is low as she barely mouths the words, “Good night.” She walks by the desk with the slow and heavy footfalls that the vanquished know deep in their heart. Watching her pass, Jimmy feels a chill run through his bones as though someone has stepped over his grave.
After she leaves, he searches for understanding, scanning his memory for clues. He has heard about how the eighth floor smells of weed smoke ever since she moved in but that doesn’t mean anything at all. Potheads are everywhere and most of them are docile folk. But Jade doesn’t appear as quiet or calm unless you consider that she is sitting in the eye of the storm.
Jimmy reflects on the little he knows and remembers one guy who seemed to be her only friend, a queen who went by the name of Miss Fred. Miss Fred was a man with a cheap face and expensive shoes who always caught an attitude at the front desk. “I am sorry, but you must be announced,” Jimmy would say in the most officious manner, to which Miss Fred would reply,” Get over yourself honey, this ain’t the Waldorf Astoria.” Then he would swish past the desk as though he were wearing a ballroom gown. And though Jimmy’s fists would itch, he would take a deep breath before picking up the phone to let Jade know that little troll was on the way upstairs. Yes Ma’am.
Jade kept to herself within the building, making no acquaintances, establishing no comraderie. Jimmy can’t remember any girls coming by to visit. But guys came by and went, all hours of the day and night. Jade had a thing for derelicts, criminals, and druggies; she probably entertained some homeless men, too. They would step to Jimmy acting rough but he could tell they were out of their element, uncomfortable around all these middle-aged, middle-class white folk. He took notice when their voices got louder and their chests puffed up and they turned away from the desk to survey the lobby and made eye contact with some of the residents, staring them down like Fuck you, bitch.
Jimmy would see them come and, sometimes, Jimmy would see them go. And, sometimes, they would make a second or third appearance and, sometimes, they would be replaced by somebody new. A different face didn’t change the fact that they were all of the same and Jimmy couldn’t figure it out—where are Jade’s parents and why do they let her live like this?
No one seems to know. No one had ever seen them. And the part of Jimmy that is a father wanted to get their contact information. And call them. And ask, “Do you know what is going on? Can you make her stop? Can you cut her off? I am worried about this girl. How come you aren’t?” And the part of Jimmy that is a father wants to reach out to Jade, to take her by the shoulders and shake her gently, or maybe, just maybe, slap her hard across the face.
Snap out of it! he wants to roar but that would be crossing the line. So he keeps to himself. The Dark Princess, Jimmy has dubbed her to no one else. He knows he is one of the few to feel this way. He knows that Jade has made no allies, no friends, as she sets herself apart from everyone, as though she is above it all. He knows that Ms. Fishbein, her next-door neighbor, is out for blood having begun a quest to have Jade censured by the co-op board, that with enough applied pressure, perhaps she can force Jade out the front door.
Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn
1910, New York