to be one piece, but it's too long to post all together.
It was February and I was running out of time.
The cold weather had driven most of my subjects off the streets and my crew -- Marc, my cameramen, and Jane, my soundperson (and ex-girlfriend) -- to near mutiny.
I was also running out of money. My grant had covered the cost of film and equipment and would cover processing and editing -- if we got that far. But it didn't cover the vagaries of filming runaway kids on the streets of New York City in the middle of winter.
Plus, the little bastards kept trying to steal the equipment and there was no way I could replace it if they really made off with anything important. Like the camera. Luckily, Marc (a.k.a. Marcantonio Gerasi) was a giant of a guy, born and bred a few blocks away in Little Italy and fearless on the streets, with the steadiest hands in the business. His dream was to be in the middle of a foreign war, pointing the camera for CBS or CNN, dodging the bullets and getting incredible pictures. Here on his home turf, he was invaluable. The kids were afraid to mess with him and the other lower-life characters gave him the respect due the grandson of one of the nastiest enforcers ever to come out of Lower Manhattan in the Thirties.
Jane was doing it as a favor to my poor mother, who still dreamed of putting our wedding photos on top of the television. Personally, she hated the project, hated the weather, and was beginning to hate me.
"If I have to point a microphone at one more scabrous adolescent, I'm going to scream, Aaron."
We had just spent the better part of the morning searching for a pack of boys I had interviewed a few days before. I wanted some follow-up and some coverage in case the film was screwed up. At least, that's what I said. In fact, I was desperate to get a good interview -- just ONE good interview that I could build this documentary around. So far, I hadn't found it. The boys were, by and large, illiterate, inarticulate, and ugly. The footage I'd cut so far was filled with shadowy figures and obscure imagery. Stephen, my advisor and mentor at NYU had gone over it with me and not been encouraging.
"What you have so far, my dear Aaron, is dreck. I hate to say so, but I have to tell you the truth. It's all sad and sordid and all that, but it's boring. Nothing stands out. You have a cast of faceless hard cases and it's all extremely tragic and all that, but so what? It's going to take a lot more than dirty faces and mumbled answers to make any kind of meaningful documentary. This is 1988 and people already know there are teenage hustlers and drug addicts on the streets. It's not enough simply to show it. There has to be a story there."
My frustration was palpable. "There's no there, there. Is that what you're telling me?"
"Yes, Gertrude Stein." He patted me on the back. It was obvious he'd thought my whole project worthless from the start. "You still have some time, but..."
"I understand, Stephen. You don't have to draw me a picture."
"I fear your fascination with these kids has nothing to do with making a movie, Aaron -- but you know my stand on that. I just hate to see you waste this opportunity."
"That thing about the guy who drives one of the horse carriages in Central Park -- it's still a possibility. He's colorful as hell and the horses and the park would look beautiful on film. You could do it in a week. Shoot, edit, and bang! You still have plenty of film, don't you? And your crew?"
"You're right, Stephen. That would be the best course of action. Except I have no interest in filming horses in Central Park. I'm trying to call some attention to these kids and their plight."
Stephen made a dismissive noise in the back of his throat. "Aaron, I'm trying to help you. Remember that you're a filmmaker and not a social worker. Make a coherent film first and then you can work on saving the world."
We walked down past CBGB, looking for the gang we'd filmed before. The snow had stopped and the sun was trying to come out. If we could get some good light we could pick up some extra shots of these kids and maybe get a couple of usable statements.
Jane and Marc trudged along behind me, bitching about the weather -- and about me, I'm sure. Up ahead, I caught sight of a figure we knew well: a sleazy character known as Stan who was a kind of pimp/drug dealer/Fagin-figure to a lot of the kids. He had an apartment or a squat in one of the warehouses in the area where the kids holed up when the weather was really bad or when they were sick, which seemed to be a lot. Most of them coughed like winded dogs, making Jane complain that she could never get a clear sentence on tape. Early on I carried a bottle of over-the-counter cough medicine and offered it to them, which made them laugh and cough even more: "What, are you kidding with that shit? Give me some codeine and we'll see what that can do!" After that I stopped trying to fix them up and just concentrated on filming them. That didn't go much better.
This Stan had given me a hard time at first. He seemed to think that, as a kind of one-man Big Brother organization of the Lower East Side, he had the right to control what I was filming and who I was talking to. Big Marc disabused him of that notion right away, but he still acted as if we were working under his "protection" and largesse: he could make the boys disappear when I wanted to film them and sometimes -- against my better judgment -- I slipped him some cash to make certain that things wouldn't somehow "go wrong" with my subjects.
I saw that Stan was heading for a sheltered area where they often congregated to get out of the snow. He'd pass out cigarettes and chewing gum, and probably other stuff when the cameras weren't around, and then hustle them out to the various spots where they trolled, mainly for commuters on their way to and from work. Stan also had a line on some regular customers who were always on the look-out for new blood or a certain physical type or a "specialty" -- a kid who was willing to indulge some kinkier desires in return for a few extra bucks. There was also a rumor on the street that Stan had his own private indulgence squirreled away somewhere in one of the tenement squats. It was making the other kids annoyed. Apparently, even as disgusting as Stan was, his attention was seen as a privilege: you got the best dope, the easiest tricks, and Stan's full protection from the other weirdos and creeps that infested the place.
"Hey, man, some day, huh? Some day!" Stan was a runt, but he had over-developed shoulders and arms, which he was constantly flexing and un-flexing. He also had dirty-blond hair and a white-trash face, and he talked with the hint of some Southern or rural accent. It was impossible to tell his age because he had one of those born-old faces and he refused to say how long he'd been in the City: "Too long, Arie-Boy, too long. I seen it ALL!" So, far, he was my most interesting interview and made up the best footage we had. But I didn't want my film to be an ode to Stan -- the thought turned my stomach. I wanted it to be about the kids -- kids he was exploiting.
"You been talking to the boys today, Arie?"
"No, we just got here."
"Well, they're royally pissed, lemme tell ya." He pulled out a battered pack of cigarettes and stuck one in his mouth.
"Why? Have you been withholding the cake and ice cream again?"
Stan sniffed loudly and laughed. "You're a card, Arie-Boy. Nah, it's something I been keeping under wraps. Boys are pissed. Getting away with murder, I tell ya."
"This some new kid I've been hearing about?"
"Oh, you hear stuff, huh? Makes you interested, huh?" He leaned in to me, confidentially. His breath smelled stale, like a room that had never been opened. Stan was always trying to pimp one of the kids out to me. He couldn't believe I wasn't interested in what he had for sale. "I know your game. I won't say so in front of the gash," he slipped his eyes over at Jane. "But I know your game."
"This kid, can he talk? Would he make a good interview? That's all I'm interested in, Stan."
"Sure, sure. He can talk. He can do lots of stuff, lemme tell you." Stan make a lewd move with his tongue. "But he sure can talk. Not like those other little creeps. Kleenex, I tell you -- one blow and you can throw them away. This one I'm grooming. This one is for the big time, big money. I can smell that money. Know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean, Stan." Now he had me interested, I admit. Jane and Marc, listening passively but intently to our little discussion, shook their heads at each other. But I was curious. And I needed one good interview with a kid. Or else it was Central Park carriage drivers next on my agenda.
Some of the boys were lined up against the wall outside a pizza shop with a tattered overhang that offered to modicum of shelter from the wind. When they saw Stan coming a couple of them peeled off from the pack and beat it around the corner.
"Fuckers!" Stan screamed after them. "You rip me off again and they'll find pieces of you from here to fuckin' Yankee Stadium!" Stan clutched my arm. "You do for these sorry bastards and they bite your hand like dogs." He scanned the remaining crew. "You boys wouldn't be holdin' out on me, huh? 'Cause you know my bad temper. Fish food, that's what you'd be! Huh, Romeo?" He punched at the shoulder of a small, slightly cross-eyed Hispanic boy in a filthy denim jacket. The boy looked up at him, slack-jawed. I'd spent hours trying to get a coherent interview out of that one and was thoroughly convinced he was brain-damaged. But he worshipped Stan. At least I think he did.
"So, where's this new meat I've been hearing about? We are ready to make him into a star."
A couple of the boys snickered and made kissy sounds.
"Hey, shut your faces!" Stan silenced them with his yellow-eyed glare, like a wolf. "He's inside. You think I want my prime stock getting cold with these creeps? Now get busy, y'all. You stand around here all day and I'll bust your asses."
We'd filmed in the pizza place before -- again, thanks to some well-placed bills put into the owner's hand whenever we showed up. Apparently, Stan had the same arrangement, because he fed himself and his favorites of the moment there regularly -- which was one of the reasons we filmed there. When you want to shoot the hyenas, you have to set up on the Serengeti.
Jane immediately went over and the turned the charm -- and the cash -- on Nick behind the counter, while Marc picked out his best site to set up the camera.
I spotted our subject. It wasn't that hard because there wasn't another customer in the place. But I stopped short because the kid was sitting hunched over in a booth. At first glance I thought he was nodding off -- not an uncommon symptom among drug addicts -- but he wasn't. He was reading a newspaper. 'The New York Times,' in fact. The 'Business' section. He had the rest of the paper piled in front of him and was working his way through it with the diligence of a commuter coming in on the train from Connecticut.
"Yo!" Stan went over and smacked the boy lightly on the head. He looked up, and not with appreciation. Stan leaned over and whispered intimately in his ear, but I could tell even from a distance that this romance was not destined to last. The kid grimaced and kept pulling away from poor old Stan. It was the reaction I myself always had to the guy, so at least we were in synch on one thing right off the bat. He shook his head a couple of times, as if rejecting our kind offer of stardom, but finally Stan grabbed his arm and dragged him out of the booth and over to the table Marc had arranged. He hobbled a bit and put his hand against his side, as if he had a pain there, but then shook it off.
He was tall for a kid, but not yet filled out like a man. He had shaggy blue-black hair, pale Irish skin, and a practiced, punky sneer. Stan gave him another playful slap on the head and moved out the door. For a second I thought our prey was going to head out after him, but instead he sat down in the battered chair with insouciant ease, slipping off his black leather jacket. His white t-shirt was almost clean -- a mark of his most-favored-nation status -- and he didn't have that dead-eyed look most of the other boys seemed born with. In fact, he looked me up and down, appraisingly. Then he looked Marc up and down as well, settling his eyes on the front of his pants and then gazing up straight at him. He licked his lips.
The kid pulled out a pack of cigarettes and stuck one in his mouth. And waited.
"I guess there's no such thing as a gentleman anymore," he smirked, and lit the cigarette himself.
"Hey, there's no smoking in here!" Nick motioned at us from the counter.
"Oh, yeah? I'll put it out if you bring your dick over here to replace it." He blew a smoke ring in the direction of the counter -- and another at me.
"You know, Nick is letting us film in here, so I'd appreciate if you didn't give him any grief."
"You paying him?"
"Yes. Not much, but something."
"Yeah, nobody does squat for free, right?" He reached over and smashed the cigarette out in a planter dividing the sections of the floor, wincing a bit as he stretched. "Hey, bring me a pop over here, then. I need to suck on something. And a big straw. And some fries."
I looked over at Marc. He shook his head, but kept the camera steady and ready to roll. Jane adjusted the levels on the sound and nodded to me. I took out my notebook and pen, announced the date, time, place, and turned to our captured hyena.
"Okay, I'll just ask you a few questions. Anything you don't want to answer, just say so."
"Sure. Why not?"
"All right. What's your name? You only need to give me your first name."
"My name? What do you want my name to be?"
I sighed. "Let's try this again. What do they call you? Not what I want to call you, but whatever anyone calls you, okay?"
"Okay, then. Jack. How old are you?"
"How old do you want me to be?"
I looked at Marc again. He rolled his eyes.
"Sixteen? Seventeen? Am I getting close?"
"Sure, close enough. What, do you want to send me a birthday card? You still have about two months to go."
"Why aren't you in school, Jack?"
"School? Why they let me out today to take my SAT's."
Jane snorted softly, stifling a laugh. I glared at her.
"Okay, then. When you were walking over here I noticed that you seem like you might have been in a fight or something. Somebody hurt you?"
He leaned back a bit, his eyes blinking. Nick came over to the table, bringing a large Coke -- with a big straw -- and a plate of fries. Jack moved his tongue around in his cheek in a lewd, hungry manner, looking at the food and then looking at me, before he answered.
"Yeah, my old man didn't like the way I blew him, so he broke my fucking ribs. That the kind of stuff you're looking for?"
I glanced over at Mark and Jane. With these kids sometimes it's hard to tell what part of what they are saying is the truth, even the most sordid information. It was impossible for me to know how much Jack was giving me reality and how much a performance. I began to wonder if it really mattered. And isn't that what he was paid to do: give a performance? Isn't that what I was paying him to do? Or, rather, paying Stan.
"Would you like some aspirin or something? I can get you some around the corner."
"Yeah, I've already got something I take. Something a little better than aspirin. I get that around the corner, too. You'd be shocked to know just what you can pick up on any street corner."
I paused for a minute, watching him while he finished the fries. I looked down at my interview questions, trying to think of an original question that would get an honest answer. "How did you get started doing this?"
"Well, Aaron, let me tell you. I started off as a dog walker on Fifth Avenue, but I kept losing the dogs and picking up guys instead. Amazing how that happens when you're on the street all day."
"You don't sound like you're from around here..."
"You mean 'here' -- as in this dump? Or 'here' as in the Bowery? Or 'here' as on this planet existing in this universe? I didn't know we were going to get into a debate on philosophy. Maybe you can wait for Stan to return; he's got quite a personal philosophy, which he puts into practice on my ass as often as he can." He sucked the Coke noisily through the straw. "Anything you want me to repeat or you got that down clearly?" He addressed this to Jane and she frowned back at him.
"You still haven't answered my question about where you are from -- originally. Your accent isn't New York. Are you from the Midwest?"
His face became as passive as a mask. "You must be kidding if you think I'm going to tell you where I'm from. Where I'm from or where I'm going, what the fuck difference does it make? I'm here right now. Make the most of it."
I actually interviewed Jack for over an hour. I abandoned my notebook -- he kept mocking it -- and asked questions off the top of my head. Sometimes he gave flip responses, sometimes angry ones, and a few times a response that seemed almost the truth. I began to get excited because I could see the way his answers, the first lucid and really usable footage I'd gotten out of any of the boys, might shape the rest of what I'd filmed.
He was especially cogent on the subject of Stan. While the other boys seemed terrified of their ersatz pimp, Jack ridiculed him, called him a toothless hillbilly, a bad businessman, and a lousy lay. He said that Stan's dick was so small that Jack had to carry a magnifying glass to find it, like Sherlock Holmes searching for an invisible clue. Even Marc laughed at that one. As long as we continued to order him food, he continued to talk. He gave us character sketches of the other boys, descriptions of the johns and their practices -- the more disgusting, the more animated he became -- and the conditions in the squats around the area.
Suddenly, he stopped and glanced around. "Fuck! What time is it?" He turned and saw the clock between a poster of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Acropolis, then checked his watch against it. "Shit! I gotta go!" He stood up quickly and then winced -- he had definitely been hurt and his side was giving him grief. "Thanks for the lunch. Set up the next appointment with my assistant and I'll get back to you."
I was so excited by the footage I got from Jack that I called Stephen the minute I got back to my place and told him I'd really made a breakthrough. We could forget the carriage rides and the horses. A couple of more sessions with Jack and, perhaps, some commentary from one of the social workers who specialized in these cases to give the "official" statement -- a point Stephen insisted on for "verisimilitude" -- and we'd have enough to go to editing. I was so on a high that I invited Jane out to dinner. We went to our favorite Thai place and then she came back to my apartment for an 'old time's sake' screw. She seemed to feel that we were back on track, but my mind was really elsewhere. I was thinking of the kinds of questions I could ask Jack the next time I saw him.
The next two days the weather was awful and we didn't see a sign of Jack, Stan, or any of the kids. So, we went back and Jane and I spent the time going through footage and making notes. I was starting to form the narrative in my head and we laid out the scenes on the board and looked for places where we needed to fill in the blanks.
Jane was positively giddy from what she saw as the renewal of our relationship, but I was still having the same issues with it that broke us up in the first place. She wanted to move in, even though my apartment was really barely big enough for me. She also wanted a commitment. I was twenty-five and she was a year older and getting the pressure from her yenta mother to get on with it for heaven's sake and give her some grandchildren before she and Jane's father were ready to move to Orange Grove, where most of their friends were already ensconced.
Then the weather cleared again and we were back in business. Jack was in his booth in the pizza shop, smoking and reading, a months-old copy of 'The New Yorker' this time, and the kids were scattered around the sidewalk outside. Good old Stan was nowhere in evidence. Without Stan around, Jack seemed to feel pretty free to boss the other boys around, bad-mouth Stan, and joke with us. He seemed to be healing from whatever injury he'd had and didn't seem to be hurting -- or, as Marc said, cynically, he was "feeling no pain, if you catch my drift" -- so he took us on a tour of the area, pointing out notorious drug dens, murder sites, and the entrance to a leather bar that looked more forbidding than the gate at the Tower of London.
"I tell the kids: keep the fuck away from this place after dark -- and I mean it. Some nasty shit happens in there. Hey, Romeo, come over here." He motioned for the cross-eyed Hispanic kid. "Romeo doesn't listen to me and comes over here regularly, don't you, kid?" The boy shrugged. "Take off your shirt for the nice man."
"Give him a buck. He'll do it for a quarter, but you're a big man, aren't you, Aaron?" I gave the kid a dollar and he pulled off his t-shirt, standing on the sidewalk in 30 degree weather. His back was covered with small, round welts, some dark and some bright red.
"These look like burns."
"Yeah, they are. Some guys who hang out in this place, they like to play ashtray with little Romeo here."
I stared at the boy. "You're kidding."
"Now why would I do that, Aaron?" Jack was puffing on his cigarette and drew it hard, making the end glow brightly. He took it out of his mouth and put it up to my face. "This little butt can leave a nasty mark. I guess it makes some guys think they are pretty big macho men, burning a hole in a 13-year-old. And little Romeo really doesn't mind because, see, he can't feel any pain at all, can you, darling?" The kid looked up at Jack and smiled crookedly. Jack glared at me, his green eyes glowing brightly, and said, "I envy him."