154 W. 83rd St.

 

Jason Gurley

 

The glass-encased display faced 117th Street, where the people exited the Helmsley station each day as it rolled in promptly at 8:00. The people would crowd up the stairs, pushing and shoving as they exited at street-level, and like clockwork, some would see the display and be churned to the fringe of the crowd, where they would stop and watch. Like clockwork.

There were dozens of filmy sheets hanging from curved hooks in the display wall. They were tapestry screens – the market's replacement for flat-screen televisions. The tapestry screens were exactly what the name suggested: soft, fluttery swatches of cloth with some sort of crystal display network woven into the fabric, giving the viewer the impression that everything shown on the screen took place on a windy day, or on the surface of an ocean rent by a tropical storm.

The screens showed a single pixel, nothing more than a full screen of a soft peach hue. Slowly the pixel retreated, at first revealing the slightly shadowed edges of surrounding blocks, then disappearing into thousands of similar squares until they coagulated to form the face of Leanna Ngo.

"She got picked up by CBC," someone whispered, as though speaking loudly might interrupt the silent newscast. "Her contract was up at LSA, and the network dumped her."

A squat, slump-shouldered man of 72, Albert Finley leaned against the U-shaped wall that overshadowed the stairway that led to and from the B-train rails below the street. He snuffled at this statement, amazed and disgusted.

"Negotiated for a week," that someone went on, and Albert grunted in disbelief. He took a step forward and dropped a heavy, liver-spotted hand on the conversationalist's back.

The man turned. "Yeah?" he muttered through a scruff of facial hair.

Albert blinked twice, three times, and said, his voice skipping across its own words, "S-she is a com-computer progr-gr-gram!"

The man shrugged Albert's hand off of his back and turned back to his friend, carrying his conversation further and driving Albert away.

Albert shoved his cold hands deep into his jeans and shuffled the pennies he found there between his fingertips. The autumn mornings aggravated his arthritis; he juggled coins incessantly to fight back.

He pushed through the crowd and was sucked, amidst a tangle of arms and legs, through the intersection, emerging on the other side with a scowl. Albert lowered his head and tottered forward through the melee, wishing that just once, everyone in the city would succumb to his wishes and die.

* * *

The room was the only thing that reminded him of what used to be: the paint on the walls peeling away in onion-skin slices, stiff and angry; the dated décor that pulled him back through the years to his favorite period – the 1990s; the slow ticking of the alarm clock on the night stand.

Albert lay down on the bed, a bare mattress striped in dark blue and urine-stained-white, and the generator died. The room dropped into darkness, and suddenly the noises that bounced off of the window seemed much louder. Much more real.

He sat up, dangled his legs over the edge of the bed, and heaved a mighty sigh before pushing off of the mattress and to his feet.

The generator stood beside a dented black refrigerator like a crying dog, always groaning and hissing – when it stayed on. A thick yellow cord ran from its belly and under the door. It crept into the hallway and merged with a stiff orange extension cord, which angled down the hall until it transitioned into another extension, and another, until the final cord wound its way into an outlet in the basement shared by the condemned apartment complex and the neighboring utility company.

Albert switched the generator on and lay back on his bed. He had no electronic devices in the apartment. He despised technology, wouldn't own a television or tapestry screen if he was handed a thirty million dollar check to do so.

He was seventy-two years old. Over half his life had been spent on this side of the year 2000, and every night he prayed that the city would die and he could live in peace with his memories.

Albert just remembered more than he could bear.

* * *

1998: Albert was twenty-eight and in love . . . with theatre. He was writing for the Boston Globe then, a New York correspondent that handed the Massachussetts rag a review that ran each morning, neck-and-neck with the Times and Post in the Apple. It was also the year that he discovered the Bergen & Company Theater Playhouse, a very off-Broadway theatre in old New York, where some of the streets were still paved in lumpy, uneven cobblestones and trees, old and withering, still sprouted from the sidewalk with a measure of majesty.

He'd been visiting a friend who lived in a building on Abrams Street, Johnny Gilbert. Johnny was thirty, and was having the worst year of his life.

"You know Gloria left," he said to Albert over coffee on an October morning, the two of them sitting at a dirty table in some diner (forty-four years later and Albert lost the name of the diner in some cluttered attic in his memory, where ex-wives, grade-school playmates, and tragic moments went to die) around the corner. "And I left for the store this morning to buy some cereal. When I came back, well, darned if there wasn't an eviction notice on my apartment door."

"Johnny, you should've asked me for money," Albert said, and blanched at the stale coffee. "I would've –"

"Not behind on the rent," Johnny interrupted. "Drink up, Al. Good stuff."

Albert looked at the abandoned cup and shrugged.

"No, they're kicking us all out," Johnny went on. "Condemning the place. Heck, it's only twenty years old. Guess the builders used the wrong wood or something. It's getting wet and bending down all around us. Should've expected this, you know. Bad year."

"Anybody else wouldn't be able to take it, Johnny," Albert said, and he was right, sort of. Losing your wife, your job, your home, your kids all in the space of seven months, well, that would break anyone, and it ended up doing that. Johnny killed himself a week later; the paper said he'd tried hanging himself on a rafter, but the wood snapped, so he tried sealing his apartment shut with the gas on, but the gas company had turned it off that morning. He eventually climbed to the roof, evidently to jump, and had fallen through the gravel-and-tar rooftop and plunged through three living room floors before he hit a toilet.

But Johnny told Albert that day about the one thing that kept him going, and it was the Bergen & Co. "I go almost every night," he said. "Little playhouse around the bend. Walk to it. They don't charge nothin', and darned if they aren't the best troupe of actors I ever seen. You oughta write about them, Al, and not all these film actors tryin' to prove somethin'. These guys are the real deal."

"I don't write much about off-Broadway performances, Johnny," Albert said. "'Specially not this far off."

Johnny set his coffee down, leaned across the table, and folded his hands. "Albert," he said quietly, "those plays . . . they make me forget about myself. About my life. If that's not something special, well, then nothing is."

So Albert went that night and saw a play about a single man living in a condemned building wresting with the idea of suicide, and he went home and sat on his couch and stared at the window.

And the next night, he went back and saw his favorite play, Death of a Salesman. The following night it was an original performance about an anonymous poet stirring up a foreign nation with his words of freedom, and Albert went back again and again, six times, until he got there one day and there was a chain on the door and a sign that said: Bergen & Company Theater Playhouse closed. We appreciate your patronage and support.

That was the night Johnny ate it.

* * *

Albert stopped writing for the Globe after that, and soon there weren't any plays that he loved except those held in falling-apart buildings where the actors performed for the love of performing and not for the money. He would sit in the audience with sometimes a hundred people, sometimes two lonely souls like himself, and he felt alive, and moved.

And then the years went by, and pretty soon there were no more underfunded playhouses, just the big ones where unknown actors weren't welcome, just Hollywood has-beens with a need to make themselves credible again, but as a decade passed, those faded, too, and Hollywood went with it, until the only form of performance entertainment was wholly digital, and children read about actors in their history books and laughed at such an absurd notion.

Albert was Johnny, had Johnny lived to see this. An alien in the society that he was born into, a man who lived on the edge of what was considered natural, remembering the past and dying to go back, or just dying to forget.

* * *

He lived on canned food, the stuff that nobody bought any more and the stores just gave away before it spoiled, cooking it over a hot plate in his little room and eating it with the same fork each night. He read books and imagined people speaking the words with a passion, and it hurt, and he could never read more than a few pages before throwing the book down with a tightness in his gut.

Albert spent his mornings in Central Park, under a maple that curved and spread over a wood-and-iron bench that Albert almost never got to sit in because somebody was sleeping there. He would ease to the dirt and lean against the tree and watch people: the teenagers that walked around with wires and little screens and phones built into their clothing; the businessmen taking a moment to get back to nature and then giving in to sit on fountains and benches to check their ve-mail; the old folks like himself, who whizzed through the park on electric scooters.

And he remembered a time as a child, when his father had taken him here for a walk, and Albert had ridden on his shoulders for what seemed hours. There had been a crowd that day, clumped and clustered in a wide circle around two people in doublets. There was a man wearing a fake beard and a monocle, and a girl in a ruffled dress and corset, and they danced about each other, shouting and spitting words that Albert later learned were Shakespeare's. He and his father watched for awhile, and that night, when he went to bed, his father began a month of bedtime readings from Macbeth.

Albert blinked and pressed his palms into the wet earth and stood, using the cracked and gnarled maple for support. He watched as people passed, none strolling, all briskly walking or driving, and he said, "I am a Jew."

Nobody looked his way; people continued to pass, intent on being somewhere other than there, oblivious to the bent and tired old man beneath the shadow of the maple tree.

So Albert stepped out of the shade and stood beside the plexicrete sidewalk and said, loudly, "I am a Jew."

A few people shuffled to one side, stepping around the loopy old fellow in the T-shirt with a peeling Smashing Pumpkins iron-on label, and the sleeping man on the bench grunted and rolled over, but Albert continued nevertheless.

"I am a Jew," he pronounced in his gravelly, old-man voice. "Hath not a Jew eyes?"

He stepped over the sidewalk and to the fountain, and the few people there scattered away, shaking their heads, but Albert went on.

"Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions," Albert cried, "senses, affections . . . passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases?"

When Albert looked up, the man on the bench was sitting upright, staring, and a young boy on a blade-board had stopped to gawk.

"Healed by the same means," Albert spoke on, feeling his chest warm and his shoulders lighten, "warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

"If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge."

Albert stopped to take a breath, and when he looked around, there were a half-dozen people watching him, some staring, some bewildered, but there was one – the teenager – who looked on with what was very close to wonder, and Albert was one who recognized that look in a young man's eye. He did not stop speaking.

"If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

The young man stepped forward, and nervously said, "Gentlemen, my master Antonio is at his house and desires to speak with you both," and Albert stopped and looked at the boy with delight, and his eyes grew wet.

He started to open his mouth to speak Salarino's part, and a woman, standing at the back of what was now a gathering of a dozen or more, said, quietly, "We have been up and down to seek him."

Albert laughed out loud, and watched the faces as slowly, those standing in the crowd that knew the play began to speak, assuming roles that they hadn't thought of for years upon years, and he was happier than he ever might have imagined.

Eventually, the crowd dissipated, and Albert stayed behind, sitting on the precipice of the fountain, just reveling in the glow that he felt, and then a man close to him in age but wearing dissimilar clothing (a carefully tailored silk suit to Albert's T-shirt and sweat pants) sat beside him, resting his briefcase in the grass.

"I watched that," he said to Albert.

Albert looked at him and said, "Amazing, wasn't it?"

"You might call it that," the man said, stuffing his frail hand into Albert's and shaking lightly. "I'm Edwin Cooper."

"Albert Finley," Albert replied, shaking Edwin's hand. "What might I do for you?" This was as chatty as Albert had been in decades, and somehow Edwin seemed to understand this.

"I'd like to give you seventy-five thousand dollars," Edwin said, and Albert's chest tightened. He hesitated, and then asked, "For what?"

"To do what you did today."

Albert cocked his head and his gray hair tumbled over his ear. "To jabber in the park?"

"No, no," Edwin said, hiding a small smile. "Albert, I haven't seen anyone inspire people – ordinary people like you and me – the way you did today in some years. I'd be interested in funding a small theater group. A playhouse, maybe. Something like that. You could run it. Wear the director's beanie and the acting coach's warmup outfit at once. Would you be interested?"

* * *

Albert lay in his bed that night and stared at the water stains on the ceiling and thought about that day, mostly about the young man who swallowed his personality and joined in, and then about Edwin Cooper, who then took over his thoughts. Wouldn't that be grand? To actually create in other people the same delight he felt forty years ago?

He knew that he would say yes, but the old writer in him told him not to commit, and Albert asked for a day to think. An hour would have been enough. A minute! But he waited until he could wait no longer, and Albert walked to a pay phone at three a.m. and called the number Edwin had given him, and to the sleepy old fellow he accepted.

* * *

"This is the playhouse that you want?" Edwin asked as the two old men leaned against the side of Edwin's limousine and stared at the incredibly old building. "Why, look at these streets? Bumpy! And the sidewalks are actually concrete, Albert. Why would you –"

But Albert's face answered all of Edwin's questions, and by week's end, Edwin had purchased the old Bergen & Company Theater Playhouse from an incredulous real estate agent who knew better than to question a rich man's intentions and who sold Edwin the property without telling him that it had been on the market for nearly forty years or more.

"I'm surprised they never knocked this down," Edwin said to Albert one day as they watched a crew of cheap labor workers repair seats and paint the walls. "It's a good, sturdy old building, but forty years, Albert! Forty."

Albert just smiled, remembering the wonderful little plays and dreaming of the same.

There were no major casting calls, just little block ads in the back of homemade zines and fliers on the streets in the poorer sections of the city, and when Albert opened the doors to the playhouse, there was a small crowd waiting to be let in. He gave them all parts and went home light on his feet as they slowly became the first real actors in a half-century.

* * *

The offices behind the stage at the playhouse were still furnished, though dusty, and Albert claimed one for himself and struck gold while poring through drawers of untouched junk and papers: 154 W. 83rd St. He recognized it from the first lines of dialogue: this was the play he had seen that first night at the Bergen, and this, he knew, was the first play he would perform.

They practiced for nearly a year, and Edwin came through when they were ready, running commercials and big ads and buying electraboard space and billing it as the original entertainment, and when they opened on December first, the Bergen held three hundred people, nearly a hundred more than there were seats. The show was far from perfect, Albert knew as he watched from the wings and as he performed a small role as the maintenance man, but it was real and it was painfully beautiful, and he knew that the audience felt this, too.

* * *

When it was over, the cast stood on the stage, arm in arm, and bowed, and then they all turned in Albert's direction and began to clap for him, and Albert closed his eyes and let the applause roll over his face, caressing him as a woman might, with the softest of touches and whispers. Edwin stood beside him, arms swept grandly away from his body, bending at the waist as the people shouted for more.

Edwin draped one arm across Albert's bony old shoulders and leaned in close until his lips brushed the old man's hair. "You did this," Edwin breathed, his lips and tongue clicking in perfect enunciation. "We hold in our hearts now what you alone held in your mind."

Albert opened his eyes and studied the throng of mothers and husbands and politicians and accountants and saw not one person who let doubt or disbelief tinge his face.

Edwin raised Albert's hands up, up, up, and the old dreamer stood with his arms wide, slack at the knee, basking in the wonderful glow that radiated from the people, and there, staring up at the dusty rafters of the playhouse, for the first time in more than thirty years, Albert Finley wept.

 
 
 
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Author Bio

Jason Gurley writes in Nevada, where he lives with his wife. His work has appeared in some fifty print and online journals, among them The Paumanok Review, Palimpsest Magazine, Verge Magazine, The Bay Review, Salon D'Arte, Eclectica," and "Liquid Ohio. Jason is the author of two novels and a short story collection, and is currently writing Novel No. 3. He edits and publishes the fiction quarterly Deeply Shallow (www.deeplyshallow.com) in his free time.

 


 

 
 
 

"154 W. 83rd St." Copyright © 2000 Jason Gurley. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
 
This page last updated 1-14-01.

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