Back then, it seemed like every time I took the Lexington Avenue subway it was winter and it was cold. I don’t mean cold like there’s a chill in the air and you forgot your coat. I mean icy f-ing New York cold, the kind of cold when wind howling down West 10th Street from the Hudson, or down East 12th Street off the East River would hit you in the face like you’d walked into a plate glass door made of ice. Winter winds in the city had fingers that could reach down your collar all the way to your beltline scraping your skin raw with air so frigid you couldn’t breathe it. It was cold on a molecular level. You could have used it to preserve fertilized eggs or sperm.
I used to walk from the Voice office on University and 11th, or from my $40-a-month dump on Avenue B to the station at 14th Street and wait for the train looking down the tracks for a bobbing headlight and listening for the screech of its brakes with unusually keen anticipation because at the other end of my ride on the Lex I would be saved. I needed to be saved quite often back then because I was young and I was lonely and I was an idiot.
This is what kind of idiot I was. I wore a costume: a brown rough-out leather jacket with fringed sleeves and jeans and cowboy boots with Vibram lugged soles and a safari hat I had bought at a place on the Upper East Side called Hunting World that cost me two weeks’ pay. Me. I was a Truscott, a graduate of West Point, a staff writer at the Village Voice, I had articles on the op-ed page of the Times and in Esquire and Harpers, and yet I felt the need to dress up like some outlaw riding alone on a sorrel mare into Dodge City Kansas in 1880.
We weren’t satisfied to be who we were, none of us, so we tried on selves with the clothes we wore. Blair Sabol, who wrote the fashion column in the Voice, and I even wrote an Esquire story about it called “The Politics of Costume.” The personal was political back then, remember? But how could that be when we didn’t know WTF we were doing or who we were? I don’t think I ever thought about the statement my costume made about me. I’m not even sure I cared. I felt the need to dress like I was someone else in part because everyone else did, and because it put people off. It made them wonder who you were and what you were capable of. I guess it was like a suit of armor and boy did I need one.
The Lexington Avenue subway line, also known as the IRT, was the first subway built in New York, running originally from City Hall to 42nd Street. It was later lengthened to run from South Ferry to 125th Street and is the heaviest trafficked mass transit line in the country with more than a million riders a day. For years it was the only subway serving the east side of Manhattan. Those were my years, and that was why I rode it. The Lex got me out of the grubby Lower East Side and took me to a place where the apartments were spacious and warm and the restaurants had white table cloths and served food so wonderful and so expensive that someone else had to pay for it.
You took the Lex when you got a call from an uptown magazine and an editor was going to take you to lunch or invite you to a book launch party or a swanky dinner at some swell’s apartment the editor wanted to impress. You see, part of my job in my ridiculous rider-on-the-range costume was to be a swaggering, unpredictable, downtown angry young man. There were lots of us back then and for reasons I still don’t understand, we were very much in demand. All it took was attitude, talent, and a taste for the sauce. More on that last and quite necessary qualification later.
You also took the Lex when the heat was out in your dump of a building on Avenue B and you had reached the bottom of your very shallow bank account and you needed comfort and warmth and the kind of attention that wasn’t usually available from more savvy downtown girls. In other words, you needed to be saved – from the weather, from the ravages of the Big City, but most of all from yourself.
I met Harriet in the summer of 1969 when I was living in a loft I sublet down on Broome Street just off Lafayette and writing stories for the Voice and working very occasionally on Norman Mailer’s campaign for Mayor, which was being managed by a Lion’s Head buddy of mine and fellow Voice writer Joe Flaherty. Mailer gave a big speech one night at some venue on the Upper East Side, and he grabbed me on the way out asking if I was going along on his and Jimmy Breslin’s walking tour of Brooklyn the next day. He jumped in a waiting car and I was walking down East 74th or 75th heading for the Lex and downtown when a well-dressed woman in sensible heels and a set of pearls so glorious they glowed caught up with me and said she had seen me walking out of the theater with Mailer and asked if I knew him.
I did, I said. Oh, I want to know all about him, she exclaimed and invited me to join her at a Third Avenue boite called J.G. Melon for a hamburger and a drink. Food? Booze? A lady so stunning I had to catch my breath? Well, yeaaaahhh…
It was the first of many times I would earn my keep spinning stories and riding my own coattails, if you will. I told her I was writing for the Voice and she scoffed until I said I had a story on the cover that week – on the bust of the Stonewall Inn and the resulting riot, as it happened -- and I would be happy to take her to a newsstand and show her. That wouldn’t be necessary, she said, ordering us another round of gin and tonics.
It turned out she was several years older than I was and an heiress to some sort of North Carolina agricultural fortune and was going to Columbia for a masters in English. She lived on East 81st Street in a comfortable co-op in a doorman building, and after we finished at Melon’s she invited me back there so she could hear more of my stories. I’ve always been a good storyteller, and that night I began to learn what a valuable talent it is to have.
I reported to Fort Benning a week or so later and we kept in touch by mail as she followed my burgeoning career at the Voice and I heard about the courses she was taking at Columbia. It was when I returned to New York the following year to go to work full time at the Voice that I continued my acquaintanceship with the Lex.
To say that Avenue B and East 12th Street was a combat zone is to treat the ravages of combat to an injustice. I carried a sword cane to get in the front door of my building at night until I was arrested for it one night as I walked across the street to Stanley’s Bar. After that I began keeping a length of two-by-four in my cubicle at the office. I found that walking down the street with three feet cut from a pine wall stud worked just fine and it wasn’t illegal.
Harriet was in the habit of taking me to East Side dinner parties she was invited to in a circle of Columbia professors and short story writers who published in the “little magazines” of the day that she had become a part of. I became aware that it was my job to show up in my fringed leather jacket and boots and flannel shirts the night that a distinguished looking guy in a bow-tie and a beard peered over his glasses across the table at me and asked, “And what, may I ask, do you do?” I told him I was a staff writer at the Village Voice. He glanced down to the table and shared a look with another guy wearing a knit tie with a checked shirt and said, “Oh, well that’s not real writing, is it?”
I took a slug of whatever alcohol was in the glass in front of me and launched myself verbally across the table. Later that night in her apartment, Harriet made me promise I would never insult one of her friends like that again, and then she poured me a glass of single malt scotch and scooted closer to me on the couch and asked me what I wanted for breakfast.
It was Harriet who took the Lex downtown a few weeks later when I called her at 3 a.m. one night and told her I was running a high fever and sweating through my sheets and was too weak to walk up to 14th Street for some aspirin and cough syrup. She made her way down to Avenue B in her Ferragamo pumps and her mink-collared coat and mink hat and climbed the stairs to the 6th floor rooms I shared with several families of roaches and at least two rats and she stayed with me until the fever broke and I had enough strength to make it downstairs to a Greek diner for some food. I was saved.
She called me a few days later with an invitation to meet her and some of her Columbia friends at Maxwell’s Plum for drinks and a late dinner. There was apparently a shortage of angry young men on the Upper East Side, but she knew of one who was glowing with health and outfitted in a new silk scarf she had given him for the occasion.
I took the Lex.
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