One of my life’s worst experiences.
First, the characters present:
Myron and I agreed to share an apartment for our junior year. I was elated because I’d sought Myron’s friendship since first seeing that he was a jazz musician. Almost immediately we all also realized that he was a genius: Myron was fifteen years old while the rest of us were the standard eighteen, he scored thirty points of A+ our first semester, a previously nonexistent grade at Columbia, the professors insisting that they didn’t know what else to give him. I was anxious to know him; but he was elusive, I don’t think anyone knew him. Every once in a while I’d go someplace with him, but never felt we were becoming real friends: he’d borrow money in inappropriate ways, he’d ditch me on the street, two in the morning, when some whore passed: fifteen year old kid jumping into a taxi for a blow job from some garrish thirty-five year old! I thought rooming together would be my chance, see how his mind worked. Uh uh: all I found out was that he was a junkie, could barely complete a sentence by junior year, none of his checks cleared … Myron was by then not only a junkie, but was also addicted to opium-based syrups and smoked pot constantly. And through him I met others who also popped pills, would take anything … if told it would fuck them up.
Naomi was the girl I slept with nearly every night without ever once having asked her out. She came up to me at the frat party, she asked me to dance, she led me to a room upstairs … I worried that I’d never meet a nice girl because this parasite was aways attached to me. I’d tell her to get lost in the most unflattering terms, two days later she’d knock on the door, holding a flower. … She was a dancer, had a world class ass, the ass would win.
Marty was a year behind us but everyone on campus knew what a great trumpet he played. Our favorite Dizzy, Miles, or Lee Morgan lines would waft over the quad as he practiced at the open window. Marty became the backbone of the great Mongo Santamaria band, that’s his trumpet on the immortal Watermelon Man.
Tony was also a year behind us. Myron met him as he fed the jukebox in the Lions Den playing Trane’s Blue Trane. Hey, why not split the rent three ways? We would up splitting it four ways, five, and six. I paid the rent, Tony’s was the only check that did clear: and it was Tony who told us we could have his family’s furniture if we just went up to Nyack and got it. So: Tony is the origin of this experience.
My mother loaned me her Buick. I rented a trailer to hold the stuff, and off we went to Nyack: me, Myron, Naomi, Marty, and Tony. We got there all on schedule, a winter evening, the second semester just beginning. But we couldn’t get at the furniture. Tony’s parents rental house was all taped off, cops all over the place. Mr. Renter was lying on the kitchen floor, blood all over the place, with a big French chefs knife sticking out of his chest to the vertical, cops holding Mrs. Renter. Finally the cops let us get to the shed, take the stuff, load up the van. A mild winter evening was turning cold. We got on the road. Just over the hill would be the connection to the NYS Thruway, we could see the toll booths from where we ascended.
similar but flatter turf near 9W
Halfway up the mountain though traffic ahead of us was stopped. Five minutes later it was still stopped. We didn’t notice at first, but no traffic was coming the other way. It got darker, then real dark. Not one car ahead of us had moved one inch. “I’ll walk ahead and see what’s up,” I said, to no objections. I got out of the drivers door and was a hundred feet back down the road before I realized I was sliding, fought for balance, fought for purchase, got none: until I slid toward the mountain, away from the sheer cliff to the other side, kept sliding down the gutter, slid over the first root or two I contacted, finally stopped at a bigger root. I heard nothing from the car. I was way down the hill. No additional traffic had joined us though. We, Buick and trailer, were the last vehicle in the line. Still no cars ahead were advancing. But now I had a fairly probable explanation why: you could slide down, but not advance upward.
Crawl and scratch my way up, I did, very slowly, with plenty of back sliding. I reached the car, my friends seemed to have all gone into comas. Naomi was silent but seemed awake. She wanted to come out to join me. No, absolutely not, stay right there. “But I,” I emphasized, “have to call my mother. It’s past the time I vowed to have her car back. She should know there’s a problem and not just an irresponsible son. I’m going to try to ascend to one of those homes we can see a light from. Plead for help. Borrow the phone.”
We, and the car, were headed uphill, the Hudson was east of us, the Thruway toll plaza was also east of us there. Looking uphill the mountain was on my right: east. I scratched and scabbled. I tried to hold onto twigs, the twigs were covered with ice, the grass was covered with ice, the ground was covered with ice, nothing could be held onto. Yet ascend I did. Once I felt myself to be in someone’s backyard, their upstairs light on, I started to call out for help. “Hello, the house. We have a problem here, Please help.” The upstairs light went out.
Now I sensed movement behind the curtain, saw what could have been a rifle barrel poking the curtain. Maybe I should have written this all down in 1958 when it happened: winter 1959 maybe. I kept calling the house. “Help. I need to make a phone call. All traffic is stuck on 9W. Please call my mother, reverse the charges. In Rockville Centre …” and said our number.
The house door opened. If it was a gun the guy had held, he wasn’t showing it now, but seemed very mistrustful, very nervous. Cut to the first of a series of chases, I reached my mother. “You’re late,” she said, competing against the ice outside for coldness. “We’re still in Nyack,” I began. “I don’t want to know about it,” she interrupted. There’s one conclusion I’ll jump ahead to: when she died, thirty-odd years later, my mother still didn’t know what happened that night. She wouldn’t let me tell her, she never was told.
(However, now I realize that my mother is not the only person who can’t be told this, that, and many a thing: and I’m the guy who specializes in telling, trying to tell, what can’t be told.
Back at the car, downhill being just as hard as uphill, harder maybe, I realized how little help I was going to get from my car mates. Naomi was petrified, more for me I think than for herself. Myron and Marty had reefered themselves into a stupor, Tony only half-way behind them. I’d seen no one else from the line of cars ahead of us getting out and sliding off the mountain: maybe they were locals, maybe they were familiar with this behavior of the mountain. Still no one came the other way, still no one came up on us from behind. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I believed I knew that I had to turn the car around, slide down hill, get to the lowest point, try another route. I restarted the engine and very gently tried reverse. Instantly the trailer started to jackknife toward the precipice, the west side of the mountain road. Somehow I managed to stop before the trailer went over the edge, uprooted the guard rail, and yanked us off the mountain into kingdom come. Uh uh, not possible. Somehow I got the car heading back up the mountain, more or less in line with where we’d been. I turned the engine back off. We’d sit there and freeze, but still have gas. Dawn, warmth, a thaw would be slow to come: we had every reason to believe.
But no: along about 2AM we saw headlights appear at the crest of the road ahead of us. A car tiptoed over the crest started downward. Immediately the car turned oblique to the road, out of control, another car swishing and sliding right behind it. Third in line was a big gas truck. Man, when that baby turned sideways we were all petrified. The truch somehow staid on the road, didn’t nudge us off into the beyond. The cars and trucks, like they were linked together, slide down the mountain and crumpled into a big pile at the bottom. Maybe it’s a good thing we weren’t down there after all!
While that was happening we saw the cars at the top of the crest ahead of us restart their engines, creep forward. One by one the cars moved. We didn’t have good traction but we had a little bit. Topping the crest was eagerly anticipated but it didn’t afford relief unmixed: the next section of road was thick with fog. We didn’t turn utterly sideways, didn’t careen wholly out of control, we crept downhill, but we couldn’t see. And the lower we got the thicker the fog became. Zoom, from the other direction, headlights appeared, zghoom he was swallowed in the other direction, seeming to go eighty: I hope he had radar. We didn’t.
Inch by Inch by Feel
That cowboy give give a glimmer of hope that things couldn’t be so bad ahead. Well, whatever they had been, they became high impossible: the fog was unrelieved, the fog grew worse, and, unbelievably, worse yet. I announced that I had no idea whether I was on the road, in lane, half off it, or in the oncoming lane. Tony said, “Locals call this black ice.” Ah. Tony hadn’t quite left the world for a dope fantasy. Or, he was inching his way back toward the conscious. Tony got out. Holding the front right fender so he wouldn’t get lost, fall off a cliff, relaying information through Naomi who kept her ear cocked at the passenger side cracked open window, Tony felt where the road, with its right lane, seamed at the shoulder. Half-step by half-step, foot by foot, he eased us forward. A car coming, actually, from either direction, could eclipse us. We had our lights on of course, but that meant nearly nothing. Tony was right at the front side of the front right fender, holding the fender, I could hear him a bit, but I couldn’t see him at all.
Eventually the fog thinned, we still haven’t been creamed. Tony got back inside, got a very grateful for all of us hug from Naomi, who, a day before had only barely met him. I was going twenty, then thirty … Then we were at the Thruway plaza, and back on highway, speeding toward the Apple as dawn approached. We got to our pad on W 118th Street, sixth floor apartment. Even Myron and Marty realized they had to help.
The stuff unloaded, piled wherever it would fit, I was ready to shoot myself. I had to return the trailer. get the car back to my mother in Rockville Centre, on Long Island. Naomi though insisted that I sleep for a half an hour. She lay on the hard wood floor, offering her bosom as my pillow. I did: sleep for a half an hour, maybe three-quarters. Then I gritted my teeth, got the trailer back to the rental place on 1st and 125th, got onto the Triborough Bridge, and from Rockville Centre, back onto a train for Manhattan and this damn doomed new home.
Visit that apartment, those characters, and more, in Student Pad.
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