Even at the filthiest hole-in-the-wall bar down by the West Side Highway they were playing "Jingle Bells," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Here Comes Santa Claus," and my own favorite, "The Chipmunk Song," which made you glad arsenic was invented. And all of this joyous noise was playing on an endless loop. Satan himself was the Christmas D.J.
Truly, this was music with no prefrontal cortex.
So if you sat and drank enough Rolling Rocks, the same songs repeated over and over. And if you rolled your eyes and muttered, "Jesus fucking Christ," within hearing range of the bartender, he might walk right up to you and say, "What's the matter, fella, didn't get to sit on Santa's lap today at Macy's?"
The fact is, if you don't "get into the holiday spirit" people will not only be angry with you, they will think something is wrong with you and they will decide you are a bad person. A spoil sport. "He's a Grinch."
They will feel a visceral mistrust, a hatred, even.
They will reject you.
And you will find yourself on the outside of the snow globe.
I paid up and walked out.
What seemed like a couple of hours later, I suddenly sort of woke up I guess and found myself sitting on the filthy red carpeting outside the entrance to the Art Greenwich Cinema at the top of my street. My back was pressed against the glass door to the lobby. And when I glanced down, I saw that my clothes — khakis, white T-shirt, blue button-down shirt over that, Timberland boots — everything I had on was inexplicably dirty. Almost as if I had been wearing the exact same outfit for days and done nothing but slime around on the streets. And I was smoking a cigarette.
But none of that truly alarmed me. The jolt of terror came because there were two reeking, shockingly filthy wretches huddled up next to me, one on either side. Call them whatever you want — 'the homeless,' bums, vagrants, winos, bag men, beggars, hobos, tramps — but when your nose was literally inches away from their hair? The only name that fit was disgusting.
According to my watch, it was 3 A.M. on Christmas morning.
Yet. There I was. Right in the heart of their clan. And here's the really weird thing: according to my watch, it was 3 A.M. On Christmas morning, which kind of begged the question, Where did I put those forty hours I was carrying around with me?
At least they hadn't ripped my coat off me. Not that it did much good. It must have been twenty degrees. These bums were nuts to be camping outside in this weather.
God, what was I doing thinking about the weather? I had to get up, pry myself out from between those horrible creatures. And I moved about two inches forward and it was instantly apparent that it was not my coat which was keeping me warm: it was the bums.
A more sickening feeling, I cannot imagine. But the stinking heat radiating from those two life forms was the only thing keeping me alive. Of course, now that I thought about it, I could actually cross the street and go home. I didn't have to stay here one more minute. I began to stand up.
Just flexing the muscles in my arms to push myself up was enough; the movement caused both of the bums to spring fully awake and launch to their feet. They were standing above me in less time than it had taken for me to even get my ass off the ground.
Seeing me, their faces instantly relaxed into easy, friendly smiles. Relief, even. "Oh, hey, man. You scared the shit out of me. I felt that movement down by my feet and I thought somebody was trying to take my shoes," the bum said, then he laughed. He was a white bum, only around thirty. So that was pretty scary, the guy was just five years older than me.
The other guy was a black bum and he wasn't all that old, either, now that I got a good look at him. He might even have been the younger of the bums. "Are you okay?" he suddenly asked me. "To be honest, some of us have been a little worried about you. I was keeping an eye on you myself — Anita asked me to, but I would have anyway," he smiled. "Wanted to make sure you didn't choke to death or swallow your cigarette." Then he said, "Oh, and ah, thanks again for the sandwiches. I'm not sure it registered the first time I told you," and he chuckled and reached forward, slapping me on the shoulder.
Was I among the bums or frat boys? And who the fuck was Anita?
A third bum meandered over. This one was a little more fucked up. I mean, they were all fucked up. But the first two, there was something a little more clean about them on the inside. They almost seemed like regular people. Or like they had been regular people not too long ago. But this new third one, his eyes holes; he looked nasty and hollow inside.
He handed me a beer. "'ere ya go," he said.
But I liked the guy. Sometimes, that rough-around-the-edges look in a person's eyes was really just good manners combined with an uncomfortable mattress.
"Man, oh man," he said, "You are one crazy motherfucker." He started to laugh and looked at the other two bums to join in. They kind of smiled but didn't really laugh. And then the crazy, beer-giving bum asked, "So man, what's up with you? Like, all of a sudden you swoop down on us like you're Batman or something and you dump all these sandwiches and beer and cash from the ATM machine on us. Fucking nuts!"
"All of a sudden you swoop down and dump all these sandwiches and beer and cash from the ATM machine on us!"
I thought, I'll say it's nuts. Jesus. I did that? How much beer?
"Dude, do you even remember anything? Like, do you remember talking to Boner? That was fucking hysterical — hiss-ter-i-cal! What was that shit you was talking about, Boner? Semi-exotics or something?"
The black guy said, "Semiotics, Chapstick. We were discussing my former life as a Semiotics major at Brown." He glanced at me, "Do you recall any of our conversations?"
I caught the plural. "Um, actually? I really kind of don't remember a whole lot. Jesus, it's freezing out here. How can you guys — " and I stopped myself.
The first bum, though, he answered the part of the question I left off. "It just happens. You don't decide one day, I think I'll go out and become homeless. It's a whole set of circumstances that align in just the right way."
And the Chapstick guy said, "Yeah, and smack."
I was thinking, what the hell are semiotics? Is that something I should know about?
And suddenly, it made a kind of perverse sense. It was, after all, my greatest fear: that I would end up a bum, like one of them. A nothing.
And why did my mind keep flashing on an image of a hand extending a wad of tissues, clean and white: an offering.
Did I friggin' cry with the bums? I did, didn't I?
Just then, a tall and elegant black woman approached. At first I thought she was in evening wear, but as she neared me I could see that her clothes were old, the dark colors not quite matching and the coat was a man's cut. Everything was well-worn, though meticulously cared for.
The woman stood above me, then reached down and extended her smooth, bony hand. She said, "Augusten, come. Let's take a walk."
She knew my name.
What was interesting was that all of the others stood, too.
After we were about a block from the cinema, an amused smile formed on her lips. "Do you remember me at all?"
"Sorry," I told her, "I don't."
An amused smile formed on her lips. "Do you remember me at all?"
She laughed. "That's okay." And then she told me that we'd sat together on a bench for four hours last night at Abingdon Square Park. She said we talked. And then we sang some songs to keep warm.
"But I don't sing," I told her.
She smiled. "Yes. I know. But I do."
"You're a singer?" I probably had my eyebrows raised because I was thinking, When? Between dumpster dives?
"We had this exact same conversation last night. And you asked me, 'You sing? When, between dumpsters?'"
I was horrified. "I said that?"
She nodded, then she laughed and put her hand on my shoulder. "It's okay, honey. Really. I get it. I do. Like I told you last night, I wasn't born out here. I had a real and proper home once. But the booze," she said, her voice trailing off.
"Is that what happened?"
She looked at me. "It isn't the half of what happened, but yeah. Heroin happened, too and then nothing else after it. I lost my job, my kids. I lost my career. Shit, I was only twenty-three, right around your age. And I was thinking, really seriously thinking, about becoming a professional singer."
Anita stared straight ahead, the most curious, almost knowing, smile on her face. And her skin — she had such fine skin, impossibly. She didn't seem like a bum at all. She was a lady. A real lady, not a girl or a woman. But a lady from another era. From a time of hats and stocking seams and steamships and comportment.
What the hell was she doing being a bum?
Just then, her features changed and a full-blown smile seemed to light up the area around us. She grabbed my arm excitedly. "Look! Look! It's snowing. It's Christmas and it's snowing!"
It was. Heavy, wet flakes — fat and white, though stained orange by the street lamps, were just beginning to fall.
She clapped. "We've made enchantment."
When I didn't say anything she shot me a glance. "Don't you recognize that line?"
She turned and faced me, her hands on her hips. "Are you telling me you have never seen A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams?"
"I've heard of him," I said.
"Promise me that you will — every once in a while — watch a movie that was made before you were born. And also that you'll see a play now and then. Promise me," she said.
I told her I would.
She smiled, pleased. "I would ask you to promise me something else but I know you can't."
I didn't say anything. Maybe because she had already known me for four hours but I didn't know her at all; something felt almost spooky.
"I would ask you to promise me that you will stop this crazy business about wanting to be 'a bum,' as you so elegantly put it. It is most certainly not, as you say, 'your destiny.'
"I would ask you to stop drinking."
"And I would ask you to stop drinking because I know. I know what alcohol does to a person. Especially an ambitious young person with so many dreams and more talent than she even knows what to do with," she smiled and hugged her arms. "Oh, when you are young and you have talent and you know, you know in your bones that you are going to go so high and so far."
Then she left go of herself. "Those are the ones booze seems to hunger for the most. And once you are with the drink, oh, how it strip-mines the soul. In the end you end up with nothing at all. And it's like that for everybody. It doesn't matter how rich you are or how poor or how white or how yellow or," and here she looked down at the sidewalk, "how much of whatever it is you have inside you. It just does not matter. The drink is stronger. It will always win and you won't even know it's trying to until it has."
She paused and closed her eyes, lifted her face to the sky. Almost like she was facing the sun, wanting it to give her that good, clean feeling you get from it. But there was only a street lamp and falling snow. And I watched as flakes smacked her face and melted instantly. And then I realized, it must be the feeling of the snow hitting her face and instantly melting that she enjoys.
She looked at me then, her face moist. Snowflakes had gathered in her eyelashes and made it appear as though she had been crying. And then I wondered, has she?
I almost couldn't tell if she was giving me advice or telling me my fortune, like they were all mixed up.
I caught myself looking at her clothing. And I realized immediately why I was doing it. I was looking for a way to discount everything she was telling me. Because there was something too true in her words. It was frightening in a way and I wasn't sure why.
It was the music of my early childhood; an opera my mother used to play on summer afternoons.
Or, maybe she really was just a rambling drunk.
Suddenly, she clapped her hands. "Okay, enough heavy. It's snowing. It's Christmas. How about a song? Shall I sing you something? It'll be my Christmas present to you."
I hoped I wouldn't laugh during her rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" or whatever it was she had in mind.
Anita did not sing any Christmas carols nor did she launch into "The Impossible Dream."
Anita sang an aria.
It was the music of my early childhood; an opera my mother used to play on summer afternoons. I knew it the way a person can know a smell they cannot name but which transports them to one specific moment of one specific, long-gone day. It felt like opening the door to your childhood room and finding that nothing at all had changed. Her voice was unspeakably magnificent.
Perchè, perchè, Signor,
ah, perchè me ne rimuneri così?
As she sang, the windows of the brownstone across the street shimmered in reply. Her voice had weakened the molecular bond of glass. It filled the space between the flakes of falling snow and packed the air with beauty.
It was, at once, Christmas in Manhattan.
I cried but I did not make a sound.
When she finished, Anita bowed her head and was silent for a moment. Without looking up she said, "Vissi D'Arte from Puccini's Tosca. Do you speak Italian?"
I shook my head.
Anita smiled at me. "It means, Why, why, O Lord, why do you reward me thus?" n°
From You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Augusten Burroughs is the New York Times bestselling author of A Wolf at the Table, Possible Side Effects, Magical Thinking, Dry, Running with Scissors, and Sellevision. He lives in New York City and Amherst, Massachusetts. Visit www.augusten.com.|