When me and Joe got home from Vietnam, we went into business together, cutting hair. Bought a little shop in the old neighborhood and been there ever since. Back then, wisecracking Harlem barbers weren’t a cliche yet — at least not south of 110th Street.
I nestle the video camera on its makeshift tripod, carefully centering my daughter’s image. She tucks her hair behind her ear and gives a strained smile. She is sixteen, and that hair is long and golden–kissed light brown and straight; she has the gangly grace only teenagers have, that sleek gazelle form. She is wearing khaki shorts and a striped tank top, and the bite mark on her arm is already putrefying.
I spent last summer crawling through The Big Thicket with cameras and tape recorder, photographing and taping two of the last ivory-billed woodpeckers on the earth. You can see the films at your local Audubon Society showroom. This year I wanted something just as flashy but a little less taxing.
Perhaps a population study on the Bermuda cahow, or the New Zealand takahe. A month or so in the warm (not hot) sun would do me a world of good. To say nothing of the advance of science. I was idly leafing through Greenway’s Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. The city bus was winding its way through the ritzy neighborhoods of Austin, stopping to let off the chicanas, black women, and Vietnamese who tended the kitchens and gardens of the rich.
The night I met Elsie I was up on the roof of my apartment building with a bottle of Kentucky Gentleman, because it’s sort of like bourbon, but cheaper, and better at blotting out reality. Technically it wasn’t “my” building anymore since I’d been evicted and had to be gone by morning if I didn’t want sheriff’s deputies to dump all my possessions out on the sidewalk. Joke was on them — what possessions? Everything I could sell, I already had, in a vain attempt to keep up with rent. What remained was so crappy I couldn’t even give it away on Craigslist.
IT HAPPENED IN BRYANT PARK, a little after six o’clock in the evening. He was sitting by himself in lamp shadow amongst the trees, at one of the rickety green metal tables along the north side, close to where the Barnes & Noble library area is during the day. He was warmly dressed in nondescript, casual clothing and sipping from a Starbucks in a seasonally red cup, acquired from the outlet on the corner of Sixth, right opposite one of the entrances to the park. He queued, just like any normal person: watching through the window you’d have no idea of who he was, or the power he wielded over this and other neighborhoods.