It was sometime during the brutal, yet strangely cruel, winter of ’15, on or about February 83rd. The urban landscape had devolved into a greasy, gray tundra; a series of car covering perma-sludge moguls, rimed with soot and festooned with pizza crusts and dog shit. (Dog shit dotted with miniature corn and tied up in strands of undigested broccoli rabe – the Upper East Side, where Afghans are fed more roughage than musk-ox and Terriers have better haircuts than most jazz musicians.) My universe exhibited all the sensory allure of bread mold and everything I wrote started to sound like Russian literature. Bad Russian literature. In fact my neighborhood was starting to resemble a gruesomely chic retreat from Moscow. Packs of feral poodles gnawing at the frozen carcasses of take-out delivery men; a single clawed hand protruding from a pile of icy muck, a tarnished handlebar locked forever in its deathly grip, all that would mark the final place of rest for yet another Moe Howard coifed hero….
See, I told you.
I was developing an acute case of studio cabin fever, evidenced by, among other things, a growing obsession with celebrity suicides. (I liked to think of it as Hara-kiri “Clue” – Jerzy Kozinski, in the bathtub, with a plastic bag). It was definitely time for a road trip, a sojourn out into the greater cosmological area, or at least onto the next block.
Running in the park had long since become impossible so I now had to content myself with slogging over to East End Ave., my own personal Iditerod. In fact I often imagined becoming lost between Second and Third Avenues and having to slice open a sled dog to keep my hands from freezing. Of course in this neighborhood I’d probably have to gut a pair of petit malamutes, one for each hand. East End Avenue, around Gracie Mansion, was as good a destination as any. It also offered the best vantage point for watching rich people slip and fall on their asses.
I’m sorry. It was that kind of winter.
Somewhere on First, wading through drifts and floundering over buried hydrants, I tripped over a half buried Postal worker and stumbled into the Matterhorn of all sludge banks. The resultant avalanche swept me across the sidewalk and almost through the plate glass window of a small Hungarian specialty store. I sat for a moment, forehead pressed to the freezing glass, and contemplated death as described in any number of Jack London novels. Then, as the miasma of my labored breath slowly cleared, I could see, hazily obscured by the fogged glass, tiny, ghostly figures. Fascinated, I wiped away the condensation and was amazed to see an entire miniature village constructed entirely of what appeared to be paprika and suet. It was an obnoxiously cheerful winter scene, sort of a Currier & Ives & Pasternak. Looking up I saw a young woman dressed in traditional Hungarian costume standing behind the counter. She was smiling, apparently amused by my abortive sidewalk luge run. She had sort of a sleepy, sloe eyed look with long, dark, henna-red hair and not one but two nose rings. Between the rings and the dirndl skirt she sort of gave the impression of Hansel-and-Gretel- meet-Kurt-and-Courtney. As I stared back through the rising steam her full lips slowly parted and the pink tip of her tongue did a leisurely three-sixty. I felt strange stirrings deep inside my parka that could only be my long dormant sex drive (my physical gratification having become a dirty job which no one seemed much interested in doing, including me) or a ferret trying to claw his way out. I decided to go in and find out.
I entered amidst a blast of arctic air and a cloud of my own panting breath. Momentarily blinded I coolly waddled up, and into, the counter. It occurred to me, as I snuffled back the twin rivulets of snot that had been providing a steady medium for the yellow stalactites hanging from my nose, that I was perhaps not the picture of urban suavity I often imagined myself. Actually I looked more like an extra from a “Deliverance Christmas Carol” – from George Sanders to George Lindsay in ten easy, sweat soaked layers. But, I figured, what the hell, no one I knew had looked good since New Year’s. I stomped and shook and gratefully accepted a proffered paper towel from the smiling Heavy Gretel, all the time trying ignore the blubber shined visage of a demented Eskimo that stared back at me from a mirror behind the counter.
The air was thick with spicy aromas that I couldn’t quite name but as my nose thawed I could discern the mildest scent of patchouli drifting towards me from the neck of a strictly SRO white peasant blouse. Now as a rule I don’t find body piercing particularly erotogenic, (all I can imagine is maintenance), but this was somehow different. The rings in her nostril, contrasted with her dress, lent an air of Gypsy mystique and illicit expectation. Not to mention fueling the fervent hope that there were finger cymbals and handcuffs where they came from.
Feigning interest in some of the macabrely designed cooking paraphernalia, (one piece, as far as I could determine, was sort of prosthetic rotisserie), I attempted to initiate conversation. I succeeded only in knocking down a rack of ceremonial gelatin molds with my suddenly prehensile parka hood. She smiled again, (which my hormonal dog team took as a definite “mush”), and, in an accent that was half Eva Gabor and half Cyndi Lauper, asked what I was looking for, some spice, or some tea perhaps?
“I’ll, uh, take a half pound of those.” I said, pointing to a jar of what looked like dried meal worms. There was some sort of music playing, jarringly atonal yet somehow appropriate. I asked her her name.
“You’re not from around here, huh.” I cleverly offered. She answered slowly as she weighed and wrapped bags of whatever jar I pointed at, stopping only when I did. She came from Kapuvar, which I later learned, is between Budapest and the edge of page 54 in my atlas. She had been sent here by her parents to live with her Uncle Moscl who owned the store. Did she like it here? She liked the East Village, it reminded her of home (I didn’t ask), but she missed her boyfriend. It also seemed that Uncle Moscl had made some pathetic attempts at groping her. The pig, the swine I thought as I grimaced sympathetically, she should call someone, I should call someone, no better I just thrash him as the lowdown cur he was! My glasses fogged again with the vehemence of my chivalric outrage.
“No”, she said, smiling sweetly, explaining that he had stopped after she had slipped two hits of acid into his samovar. She said he spent a lot of his time now in St. Gaspar’s, around the corner, finger painting the icons with his saliva. “Eeeyyuuu”, I thought, but nodded understandingly. There was something compelling about her, she was a survivor, a hearty immigrant adapting to life in a foreign country, just like her forbears who had built this neighborhood a century before. She was valiant. She was eternal. She had great dubrovniks.
The pile of paper sacks had now grown to about chest high and it occurred to me that I might actually have to pay for ten to twenty pounds of very expensive newt eyes and toad genitals. I reached into my parka and pulled out a damp wallet, which held a few limp bills and my one ambulatory credit card, the one I was saving for a long imagined trip to Cancun.
“Do you take plastic?”
Ramiken looked at me whimsically and, taking me by the billfold, led me farther into the store, asking me if I would like a nice hot cup of tea. I accepted gratefully. There were beaded curtains in the back and the music was louder. I followed her into a small room with an antique wood burning stove. I inhaled slowly from the steaming, cracked cup she handed me and drank the bitter sweet liquid as Ramiken watched, still smiling. We talked some, or actually I listened, contenting myself with the miracle of Ramiken’s relentlessly undulant respiration. Time passed, the music got louder and my parka got warmer and deeper. Then, as I watched, rapt, Ramiken stood, stretched languorously, and started to dance.
Revolving slowly, with finger cymbals and veils, smiling as she pulled each gauzy sheet from around her shoulders. Layer upon layer floating down until they formed a flowing white drift around her. Unhurriedly unwinding until she revealed at last her glistening white torso, framed in a hazy glow ….and topped by what appeared to be the head of a ferret, with two rings in its right nostril.
Sometime later that winter I awoke, vaguely. The inside of my mouth felt like it had been recently wallpapered and I approached consciousness warily, like it was a thick letter from the IRS. I could feel someone’s fingers on my face, wet, almost sticky, they were moving slowly, tracing my features. I could also hear mumbling coming from somewhere dark and orthodox. I knew, even before I opened my eyes, that my life had finally become bad Russian literature. When I did open them I saw what I assumed to be Uncle Moscl licking his fingers and reaching for my face again. I managed to push him away and stand up. It was dark outside, and I didn’t see Ramiken’s cute furry head anywhere. Pushing my way through beaded curtains, bales of tea and six foot snow banks I managed to stumble home, falling down a lot and trying to keep all thought on a lower brain stem level – information on a strictly need-to-not-know basis. It was not until the next day that I thought to look for my wallet. Of course by that time there was a hole in my available credit the size of a one way ticket to Budapest. Which, in case you were wondering, is roughly the size Cancun.
Even as I dialed the police I knew they would find no trace of Ramiken. And they didn’t, of course, only a demented Moscl raving at a village of tiny houses and cockroach sized Kapuvarians, hurrying home through the snow.