For one glorious month, the world looked better to me from the side that the other half lived. A fantasy of many and a dream of some, the five-star bed in the four-star hotel was a world away from the harsh reality of the cold, unfriendly, and sometimes tragic streets of the Big Apple – New York City.
I wasn’t the typical downtrodden homeless denizen of Hell’s Kitchen. My parents raised me in a strict Baptist environment where change is often hard to accept. Whatever I wanted to do, was secondary to my father’s idea of what I should be doing. Holding my education hostage by withholding my college fees, my father got his wish. A Liberal Arts education in Social Sciences was not my first choice. I wanted to go to California and play music, but my college fund had only one place tapped into its direct debit - Union College in Schenectady, New York. You see, Dad was a believer in learned skills and frowned at the high number of unemployed Fine Arts graduates dotting the creative landscape of broken dreams.
“California can wait,” he would unconvincingly say to me. “The last thing they need out there is another wannabe. Apply your talent first. Then, if you still want to follow your dream, you’ll have something intellectually tangible to sell, and you won’t be forced into a life of servitude.” By Servitude, he meant the army of unemployed actors and musicians working the bars, restaurants, hotels, and other jobs reliant on generous gratuities from their patrons.
I suppose most parents want the best for their children, but what some forget is how they used to think at a young age, just starting out in life. Not all children of doting parents end up successful; however, isn’t the challenge of living your own dream more exciting than living someone else’s? It’s a natural evolution of human pioneering spirit to go forth and explore. Admittedly, it is tough on your own after college. Reluctantly, I let my parents support me financially in those early months living in the city. After a while, I was no longer a stranger beating a path through the corporate jungle of ambitious backstabbers. I had found me a comfortable position as an editor at a small music magazine in New York City and vociferously refused any further financial help from my parents. I wasn’t making a great income, but in the beginning that didn’t matter. The job came with lots of perks like entry to music venues, VIP tickets to concerts, and open invitations to the variety of private clubs sprinkled around Manhattan. I lived the high life; however, I could barely afford the rent on my one-bedroom apartment in Queens. I was spending big, living big, and repaying little. Defaulting on several loans such as for my sixty-five-inch TV, my furniture, and the 750CC motorcycle I rode to and from work, I quickly lost them to the debt collectors. The reality of life in the big city made me openly fantasise about what I really wanted to be. A musician performing on stage. I would often find myself at the office daydreaming of other more creative things to do, searching the Internet for topics not related to work. After several unheeded warnings about my lack of productivity, I was eventually fired.
Surviving on unemployment money was impossible in a high-rent district, so after my landlord made me a person of no fixed abode, I lost my benefits. Taking my chances on the inhospitable streets of New York, I fell into a depressed state, followed by a downward spiral of drinking, drug taking, and dime-bag dealing. I had quickly transformed from an editor of a music magazine to a street hustler. My worried parents sent a Baptist Intervention Group to bring me home, but the ill-equipped Snatch team failed miserably when I stole their van after they stopped to get gas. After a few hours of joyriding around Manhattan with a gas pump nozzle sticking out of one side of the van, I abandoned it on a riverside lot below the Brooklyn Bridge, engulfed in flames. My father’s resulting fury informed me I had embarrassed him within his own community and that I was no longer his son. I was too stoned to care about him, his community, or anything else.
At night, I became out of control, but during the day, I followed my aspirations of being a musician, spending as much time as I could busking with the only thing the debt collectors didn’t find - my Gibson electric guitar and battery-powered Marshall amp. I was a struggling, drug and alcohol addicted musician, and I loved it. Averaging about eighty dollars per day in donations playing old Hendrix, Clapton, and Stevie Ray, I traded it for bourbon, weed, and pills. If I had a good week, I’d buy me the occasional night at the Y. The rest of the time, I slept in makeshift shelters vacated by their previous occupants due to arrest, migration, or death. At times, I would manage a stay at one of the homeless shelters; however, I found them to be too overcrowded, noisy, and somewhat unsafe for a man carrying an expensive guitar. With help from a soup van worker, I managed to get on the list for accommodation in one of the Hell’s Kitchen contracted hotels that the city paid to house the homeless. However, the list was long, and I just didn’t believe I’d ever get to the stage of a semi-permanent roof over my head, so I continued to sing my blues by day and live them at night with drug-induced escapism.
I still managed to keep my pay-as-you-go phone service, so I was surprised to get a text invitation to attend the announcement of a new EP from an established, aging Rock band – their music still in high demand. Obviously, my unemployed status was not yet public knowledge, so booking a night at the YMCA, I cleaned myself up, put on my nicest and still trendy clothes, then headed out to one of New York’s prestigious private clubs. I had no intention of pandering to self-congratulating rhetoric that bands like to do. I knew there would be a chance to stock up on some free choice drugs to keep me detached for a while.
Arriving fashionably late, I encountered the typical atmosphere that surrounds most of the old-time Rock gods we see portrayed in movies. Heroin, Cocaine, Booze, Groupies, and hangers-on suffocated the club’s overworked in-house staff. The band were famous for their wreckage of venues at album release parties, and that night was no different. Staff were verbally abused, soaked by alcohol thrown everywhere or Champagne bottles shook beyond drinkability, then sprayed around the main room, as they choked on the fog of smoke drifting at head height from the stacks of free wacky baccy piled onto the pool table. I stuffed my pockets with lots of those and even managed to store a couple of bottles of the club’s finest bourbon into my man bag.
I felt a little sorry for the management, as they not only had to keep a brave and placating face on their withered brows, but they also knew the aftermath’s clean-up would take days. However, they were prepared for the onslaught and took comfort in the knowledge that wherever the band Wild Hair partied, they also brought with them large amounts of cash to compensate staff and venue. Often the case, venues would bid against each other to host Wild Hair’s parties, because they could renovate an entire club with the amount of cash expected to cross their forgiving hands.
As the evening grew into the most raucous of nights, the band members began to display signs that their heavy partying times were fast becoming distant memories. In fact, their band name – derived from their early years of full heads of long hair – seemed inappropriate in the modern era, as two of them were so bald, they attempted the illusion of still having long hair by wearing ill-fitting wigs. But image is everything in Rock and changing their name to a more appropriate one like Bald Old Fuckers may have lost them their fan base, so they just Rocked On like they were thirty years younger, ignoring the approaching years of “Remember when. “
Witnessing the debauchery and flagrant abandonment of morals and scruples, I couldn’t help but feel some sense of injustice in the world. How could some have so much and others so little. Spending most of my time on the streets had exhibited how many people in our society lived from mouth to mouth – just one paycheck away from losing all their hopes, dreams, and fragile security. Some of the conversations had with my fellow down-and-outers highlighted a recurring theme. One minute they were warmly tucked up in their own bed, then the next minute, they were sleeping in a tent or a cardboard box. There was no safety net to catch life’s losers and there would be no outstretched hand to pick them up and guide them back into society. It’s a fact that one person in every one hundred and six people living in New York City are homeless. That shocking statistic was in my foremost thoughts as I watched aging rockers cavorting with women half their age, blissfully ignoring anything outside their own circle of existence. Yeah, I did feel a twinge of hypocrisy jab me in my neck as I helped myself to another stack of weed and by the time Midnight rolled around, I was part of the wallpaper, stoned and drunk. Those two states of mind do not always mix, and this was apparent when on the way to use the toilet, I passed an open door to the clubs’ manager’s office. Partaking in the wanton temptations of the evening himself, he had retired to count the big black rucksack of compensated cash but passed out in mid count – so I assumed. My opportunistic high side said take the money, but my drunk side said set fire to it, teach them all a lesson. Being more high than drunk, I fled the premises with bag over my shoulder, out through the revolving front entrance door, and into an alleyway, where I needed a discreet corner to look at the largest amount of cash I had ever come across. I had to get some privacy to count it, so I grabbed a wad of money and headed for the appropriately named New Yorker Hotel.
“Good evening, sir,” greeted the desk clerk. “How can I help?”
My attire seemed to pass his squinty-eyed scrutiny of me as he fired up his handheld tablet.
“I’d like your biggest room with a view, please,” I politely asked, as an instant sobering effect of excited adrenalin brought reality speeding through my veins.
“How many nights?”
“One for now… but, if that changes, can I stay longer?”
“Of course, sir. We’d need a credit card to hold the room for you. We have a family-sized suite room, if that’s big enough… Including tax and city fees, that comes to $900 for the night.”
Producing the wad of money from my stolen bag’s side pocket, I counted out nine crisp $100 notes, then another nine notes, plus one more that I laid next to both lots.
“There’s tonight’s accommodation, that’s tomorrows’ just in case, and that single one there is for you,” I calmly smiled. “…I don’t do credit cards… I have no need of them.”
“Quite refreshing, sir. I congratulate you on your escape from the system.”
The desk clerk’s words repeated in my head all the way to the elevator, up to the thirty-ninth floor, out into the hallway, and into my spacious suite. I hadn’t escaped the system. I was still a part of its leftovers soullessly discarded onto the trash heap of society. I was as much entangled by the system, as the lavish hotel’s city tax burden was.
Hypnotically drawn to the main room’s large window, I felt an overwhelming sense of awe at the brightly lit tall buildings on display. They reminded me of a thousand Christmas trees all lit up, generating that warm feeling one gets when captivated by their display of colourful seasonal lights. The purvey of the shimmering cityscape of high-rise buildings towered over the avenues and boulevards that accommodated a cacophony of buses, taxis, delivery trucks, and wailing police cars, still busily weaving their way through the city that never sleeps. Amongst the criss-crossing of intersecting lives that still walked the lonely streets below, I could hear a loud cry beckoning me to return. However, I felt reluctant to subject myself once again to that unforgiving environment thirty-nine floors down. No more would I be a wandering nomad of the city’s desolate alleyways. Never again would I need to seek respite from the sting of the scorpion’s tail through dispensary recompense. From my glorious panoramic view, life looked and felt different. From thirty-nine floors up, I felt like a god. Despair and anguish flooded the sidewalks below with rivers of sadness and regret. Thirty-nine floors up, I felt distanced from that life, and I felt protected from its misery. The black rucksack laying across my inviting queen-sized bed helped add to that feeling. I wanted to count its contents. I wanted to swim amongst its numbers, but when I discovered the mini bar, I put that task on temporary hold. The party was about to begin, so counting could wait.
I awoke sometime later. The bright lights of the city still illuminating the dark sky. The suite’s living room was strewn with smoked and unsmoked joints, empty spirit bottles, and to my surprise, about half-a-dozen semi-clad women and men – some unashamedly in the open act of copulation. Wondering if I was back in college again, my senses were pulled back to reality by the noisy ring of the room’s telephone.
“Hello?” I foggily answered.
“Sir, this is the desk clerk… There appears to be a problem with your bill.”
“What sort of problem?” I naively asked. “I paid by cash. What possible problem could there be with that?”
“Yes, sir. You have been most generous these past thirty days. Especially to your variety of guests that have graced our halls with vomit, used needles, and human excrement. We took the liberty to deduct the clean-up costs from your cash deposit; however, it seems that you are now in arrears totalling… one moment while I pull up your account… that’s… seven thousand… five hundred dollars… needing to be settled immediately.”
“Is that all?” I confidently queried. “Send someone up and I’ll retrieve some more cash from my bag.”
There was a delay in the desk clerk’s reply. I took it to be a silent mark of admiration before thanking me, but as soon as he started to speak, I quickly realised I had wrongly interpreted his hesitancy.
“Sir… your bag is here with me… in my office. You handed it to me one week ago and said it was safer… quoting you exactly… safer with the hotel management than in your fucked up hands.”
“So, take some money out of the bag and pay my bill,” I stated, convinced it was the obvious solution.
“Sir… as much as I’d like to, I’m not a magician.”
“What do you mean!?”
“There’s no rabbit.”
“Are you saying that it’s all gone? That’s impossible!” I shouted - suddenly realising that I never did get around to counting the money.
“My itemised spreadsheet includes room costs, cleaning costs, eighty-seven bottles of champagne, thirty bottles of whiskey, room service for you and your revolving door of guests, lobster, caviar, tailored suits, Amazon deliveries, gratuities, and the occasional tub of vanilla ice cream… The total to date stands at fifty-seven thousand and five hundred dollars.”
“Do you know how much was in the bag to begin with?” I asked as a sharp pain shot through my clouded brain.
“When you handed me the bag, there was fifteen thousand in it, so based on your spending pattern, I’d guestimate approximately fifty.”
“It’s all gone…”
It all seems like a dream to me, now. Well, most of it was, because I can’t remember too much of my time thirty-nine floors up. I look back on the experience as a failed lesson in fundamental economics. I was buying high and selling low in a bear market of personal decline. I may not have invited the scorpion to the party, but he certainly sent his emissaries to drain me dry and force a terrible hunger upon me. The hotel management’s good nature comped me the balance owed, then had me forcibly removed from the premises. The scorpion’s envoys kindly accompanied me to the door, then vanished into the shadows, presumably collecting their reward for delivering me back to the gutter and into his inescapable care.
I don’t look down at things any longer. It’s hard to do that when you’re sleeping in a cardboard box. Thirty-nine floors down was a rapid and jolting descent to rock bottom. Up there, I was flying high. Down here, the city lights are a monotone reminder of a forgotten world under the Christmas trees. The scorpion patiently awaited my return to the market floor, his tail excitedly vibrating in anticipation. It didn’t take long for his sting to immobilise me, numbing my diminished sense of self-worth, poisoning my outlook on life. I now lay emotionless on my back gazing at the approaching horsemen of another freezing New York winter apocalypse. If hope of death rides on those clouds above, then for me… it’s all looking up from here.