There I was, twenty-seven and already feeling old, walking the streets in the summer swelter. It was the season of denim skirts and Bloody Mary’s. Girls stood in a line on Eighty-sixth Street, waiting for the Hampton Jitney, dressed like it was Derby Day—sandals, sundresses, floppy hats. I had an ATM balance of $117.
The 6 train delivered me to Astor Place, and I walked to St. Marks, where clusters of pretty interns, yoga mats slung across their bony shoulders, tried on sunglasses, discussed lives very different from my own. A few steps ahead, a dark-haired girl walked as if she’d just woken up, as if in nothing but a T-shirt, hair flipped to one side, making a short trip to the kitchen for water. Even from ten yards, her presence was dense and enveloping like the humidity.
Lost in thought, almost fleeing, I continued uptown, to Irving Place, a street named after the author of Rip Van Winkle, a man who knew quite well what it was like to grow old before you knew it.
There was a café with unvarnished floors and a dozen small round tables. Cups remained unbused, their sides spotted with dried coffee, like islands on a map. A man sat with a family of legal pads—notated and highlighted with various colors of ink. Two tables over, an olive-skinned woman with the face of a Russian boxer complained to her friend about men.
It must have been four or five, but the light was deceiving, strong as midday. A blonde-haired girl in a black cocktail dress entered and sat at the table next to mine. She was perfect in all the ways a person you’ve never met can be.
An older woman who was with her set down her purse, removed her wallet.
—I want to hear all about the reading, she said. But let me get something first.
She moved to the line.
I leaned over and asked the girl what reading she’d gone to.
—No, the girl said. She meant David Sedaris. He spoke at my graduation.
A moment passed, and then she said,
—I’ve heard of Princeton, I said.
Realizing the curtness of my response, I told her I’d visited the school once to listen to CK Williams, and she explained she didn’t read much poetry other than Billy Collins. Even in spite of that, the conversation opened, a catalog of topics queued in my mind.
But soon the older woman returned, and I removed an abandoned paper from a nearby table.
Restless, unable to focus, I stood to leave. The blonde girl smiled and said she enjoyed talking to me.
That was my opportunity. But what was the point? I couldn’t even afford to take her to dinner.
In front of the café, I stood for a moment, unsure of where to go next, still thinking of the girl. A man approached and asked for a dollar. He wore a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing forearms that were thin and hairless and marbled like uncooked sausage. He was black, but the arms made it clear one of his parents was white.
—You have any cigarettes? I asked.
—If I go in there and buy us a couple of beers, will you float me a few?
He took out his pack and counted.
—Okay, he said.
I walked back into the café and bought two Buds. The blonde girl ignored me.
Dee, the man in the plaid shirt, sat waiting on a wooden bench. I handed him a beer and he handed me a cigarette in return: a simple exchange, enough for me to believe he wasn’t crazy.
—I’m trying to get together some cash, he said. I got this girl. If I bring her food, she lets me bang her out.
I drank my beer, listened.
—I gotta come all the way down here to do it, though, he said. Can’t get no money in the Bronx.
A BMW coasted up the street and stopped at a red light.
—Ooooo-weeee, Dee said. Look at that—that’s the new one. I gotta get me one of those.
A father and son sat on the bench next to ours. They smiled at Dee’s enthusiasm. He turned to the boy.
—You gonna drive a car like that one day?
The boy nodded and smiled. He was no older than nine.
—Good, Dee said. Always drive cars, never motorcycles. Motorcycles are dangerous.
He was pandering, hoping the father would toss him a couple bucks. Instead, they endured him. Their smiles and nods were like a plea to stop.
—So, I said. Do you like skinny girls or big girls?
—I need some meat, Dee said. With skinny girls, their hipbones hurt. I mean, that shit’s sharp. The only way you can fuck ’em is by turning ’em round. But with big girls, he said, you can be like:
With his hands he made a series of gestures, punctuating each position with the word bam.
—You see what I mean?
—I get the idea, yeah.
We had two more beers, talked about Mike Tyson and comic books and the world’s water shortage. Then, as our bottles became empty, he told me about a drink I had to try. He called it the Incredible Hulk, and it was made by mixing a bottle of Hennessy with a bottle of something called Hpnotiq. He told me he drank it every day when he lived in Florida.
We sat in silence for a moment, watched the wealthy walk their dogs.
—Yep, he said. Some Hulk sure would be nice around now. It’s perfect on a warm night.
Frank’s Liquor sat at the northeast corner of Union Square. As far as I know, it still exists and still sells the ingredients to the Incredible Hulk. I bought the two bottles, and Dee said,
—All right, here’s what we do: We go to Starbucks, and we get two of those big cups, and then we mix this up.
Later, we stood on the subway steps and emptied the contents into the cups. Dee poured the liquid back and forth from one to the other, mixing them and making sure we had an equal amount.
—Good, he said when he’d finished.
I saw why they named it the Hulk: The brown of the Hennessy turned the neon blue of the Hpnotiq a pale, sickly green.
—What do you think? Dee asked.
It was like the drinking equivalent of huffing paint.
—Good, I said.
—Let’s head over to Webster Hall and meet some ladies.
—How’re we doing on cigarettes? I asked.
He removed the pack and counted.
—Some musta fallen out or something.
We stopped at a magazine shop, and I bought a pack for him and a pack for myself. Dee asked if he could have the change, and I handed him a couple of ones.
We walked down Fourth Avenue, turned onto Thirteenth Street, passed the #2 Firehouse. We’d been silent for several minutes, content with our Hulks and our smokes, when Dee asked,
—You ever have sex with another man?
—No, I said. That’s not something I would enjoy.
—Me, he said. I don’t have a problem with it, but there’s nothing better than getting my mandingo in some cooch.
I kept quiet, drank my Hulk.
At Third Avenue, we turned south, and even though it was only two blocks to Webster Hall, it took forever. Dee ran into some other men whom he spoke with and gave cigarettes. He told them about a new Wayans-brothers movie in which a midget pretends to be a baby. He said,
—That shit was out of control. You gotta see it.
He gave one of the men a dollar.
I never knew what a scene Webster Hall was on a Saturday. A line stretched halfway down the block. Women who looked like dancers from rap videos exited limos and giant SUVs.
—Oh, Dee said, I’d like to get my mandingo in her.
With the rest of his money, he bought six Glo-Stick necklaces. He put one around his neck and then laced one around mine.
—That’s for you, he said. Yeah, you’re all-right-looking for a white guy.
—Thank you, I said. What are you going to do with the others?
—These, he said, holding up the four strings of plastic, are going to some ladies.
Almost every woman who passed seemed to be his type. He joked and flirted and made inappropriate comments, and as soon as one got far enough away, he started over with another. There was a certain charm that came with watching someone with so little discretion.
One of his favorite things to do when a woman walked by was howl. It’s a tactic I’d never really thought of, but it proved successful in getting attention. And once, when he did it to two plump, haggard women in their late forties, they turned around and thought it’d been me.
—Do you think we’re MILFs? the heavier of the two asked.
—You’re gonna have to ask him, I said.
They looked over at Dee and he grabbed a handful of cloth in the front of his pants and said,
—Come here, and I’ll tell you.
The two women—probably just bored housewives from Jersey—looked horrified. With a little bit of luck, they’d never return to the city again.
I bought six more necklaces, then six more after that. By the end of the night, I’d spent close to eighty dollars. That might’ve been enough to take the blonde girl from the café out to dinner. But I’d already been on enough dinner dates, and I almost always knew how they turned out: more dinner dates. With Dee, he lived as though he’d just won the lottery, and I was eager to see what would happen next.
As the night carried on, though, I started receiving messages on my phone:
—Where are you? one said.
—What are you up to?
They were from a girl I’d met at my gym. She was sweet and open and forgiving of my many flaws, but I also knew there was a level of affection I’d never conjure for her. And yet when her next message invited me over, I found myself typing:
—Will you buy me breakfast tomorrow?
Almost as soon as I sent it, a response returned:
I told Dee I was leaving, and he hugged me and said,
—Anytime you want to drink Hulk, find me. I’m around.
I walked to Union Square, descended the steps toward the train. But after a moment, I realized I stood on the wrong platform: heading uptown, to my apartment, rather than downtown, to her place.
It’s difficult to deny the escape offered by someone else’s company, the brief reprieve from one’s humbling circumstances.
I like to think I made a choice that night—one I’m glad I made by accident—that as the subway wind swirled and the uptown train came into view, it was more than just the weary weight of the Hulk keeping me in place. I like to think that when the doors opened and I entered the car, it was with the pure heart of someone wanting to be delivered home, where I could rise up tomorrow, and start again.