On Elizabeth Street, Chapter One

BOOK I: FRIDAY

CHAPTER 1: SUNSET ON ELIZABETH STREET

            It was Friday, late in the month of August, when the sun began to set behind Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in the downtown Manhattan enclave north of Little Italy, known as Nolita. A fairly fresh real estate term, as one hundred years ago the larger area was simply Little Italy, its borders were considered to be Houston to the North, Bowery to the East, Broome to the South, and Lafayette to the west. It had a reputation for being mostly residential, with quiet, small streets and little traffic.

Despite the trendy retail shops, and restaurants with wait lists, a part of this neighborhood existed in a bubble. It was part of the charm, languages long dead in Italy were spoken on its streets and the same families spanning three or four generations still owned a fair number of the buildings. Just before five o’clock a posse of dark, ancient, women walked to church to attend a Catholic novena. On Sundays, a faint scent of sugo, or Italian tomato sauce, permeated apartment hallways and outside the open windows. It was a place one might call enchanted, where the passage of time was gentle and careful.

A group of giggling teenagers skipped past a pair of sweat soaked, stylish, forty-year-old men standing on Elizabeth Street, just above Prince. The macho, Barbour Catalog of handsome men were failing to lift a large and heavy Oriental rug into the back of an over-sized pick-up truck.

“Lift!” the taller one ordered.

            “I’m trying!” the shorter one answered.

            “Not hard enough!”

            “You’re paying for my Chiropractor!”

            “That guy’s a Charlatan!”

            “Everyone is staring at us!”

            “You love being stared at!”

Their guttural moans, followed by boyish banter, could be heard down the block alongside horn

honking from angry drivers. Great-grandmothers dressed in black screamed obscenities with matching

hand gestures from tenement windows.

At last, a frustrated twenty year old in a blood-soaked apron exited Albanese Meats, the

butcher shop just next door, and helped push the rug into the back of the truck in less than five seconds.

He mumbled something under his breath as he walked away.

            “I think that’s how you say asshole in Italian,” Gerald August Baxter II, forty-three, chuckled, as he stood in front of the Girardi Building. His first apartment in New York City was there, on the top floor.

Blessed with soft to the touch, thick, dirty blond hair that crested in the front, Augie, as he was known, had small blue eyes, small ears and an extremely large, wide nose. He barely reached five feet, eight inches tall but was thick, muscular, and easy to squeeze. When he smiled, his cheeks rolled up in layers, like a Sharpei, and his eyes glistened. Lately, he seemed distant, and a little sad in photos. In fact, he had stopped smiling altogether in front of the camera which was odd considering Augie, an exhibitionist, loved the spotlight. He wondered if anyone noticed.

He had come to town that day to housesit for the weekend and to help his best friend from college, JR, move out of this apartment. His ultimate bachelor buddy had just gotten hitched at City Hall, last minute, in a Helmut Lang suit to a much younger girl named Stacy. The newlyweds were leaving for their honeymoon in St. Barths late that night and Augie was in charge of seeing that the last of their belongings made it safely to their new home.

Saying goodbye to “Liz Street” was important. The apartment was a museum that paid homage to his youth. He never thought JR would give it up, much less get married–but here they were, loading a truck; or, trying to load a truck.

Except for a new kitchen and bathroom, the notoriously frugal JR had kept the place pretty much intact since Augie had lived there. Some of his coveted movie posters were still on the walls and vinyl LPs from his college DJ days collected dust in crates in the living room.

The enormity of his sadness didn’t hit until he stood there, yelling back and forth with his best

friend over a stupid rug. His visits to Liz Street over the years as a married family man with a passionless (but amusing) job were like a quick, guiltless trip back in time. He could shotgun beers and

walk around naked, he could watch his favorite movies and listen to his favorite records until dawn.

There was a Land Line with a coveted two-one-two area code! He could leave the toilet seat up, relax, and imagine himself younger.

            Only his wife’s phone calls returned him back to the present day.

“What have you been up to?” she asked, not really caring about the answer.

“Not much,” Augie robotically replied, holding back “I found the Tones on Tail twelve inch!” and “I saw Catherine Deneuve shopping on Madison Avenue!”

“Okay, then,” his wife would answer, immediately launching into a recitation of home improvements he would be paying for and country club mixers he would be forced to attend before segwaying into, “I’d like to talk about why we’re paying your mother’s insurance…”

“Gotta go, that’s work on the other line,” Augie interrupted, lying to her rather than screaming and hanging up.

People needed Augie; lots of people needed him, not just her. She’d never get that sense of loyalty, and responsibility. His marriage was at the point where he felt he could only experience joy privately. He didn’t want to have to justify why he liked something anymore. He just liked it, wasn’t that enough of a reason? Did he have to be self-conscious about what he liked?

Not only was he free to do what he liked at Liz Street, but also he could ponder the great desires of his youth, especially the ones that didn’t pan out but still lit fire under his ass once in a while. His cravings pushed him to buy tickets to the Film Forum that he always ended up giving away to a production assistant in his office at the last minute or convinced him to splurge on expensive subscriptions for photography magazines with beautiful, glossy, color covers that ultimately ended up crinkled and wet on the floor of his bathroom.

            How could he spend (what felt like) every minute of the day recording mostly combative and superficial lives of other people? Would that be his professional legacy? Wasn’t his life more important than that of Russian Oligarch Mistresses? Or the Pawn Shop King of Queens Boulevard? Or the Booty Doctor of the Bronx? He hated telling people what he did for a living or what lowbrow television he was responsible for producing. But it paid the bills, and then some; his wife would fill in when he lost the will to answer.

He didn’t feel like the same person who had lived on Elizabeth Street. Back then, he was a young man taking film classes at NYU and writing script treatments on his coffee break from waiting tables. He was the cocky bastard collecting photographs of locations where he would most certainly shoot his first film.

Since he was a teenager he talked about writing and directing an independent feature, inspired

by the masters of cinema he adored - like Scorsese and Kurosawa - a modern western in New York City, maybe? Then he could travel the festival circuit, surrounded by other respectable creative types and feed on their energy and momentum. There was too much pressure on Augie’s future self. It was his future self that was going to live off of less money, be a photographer, write and shoot films. His future self would be the one posting selfies at Sundance in a Siberian fur hat outside of a screening, smiling.

Having passed forty, there was now a clear difference between talking about doing something

and doing it. He took pleasure in yelling at his younger production assistants about this subject, merely projecting his own insecurities onto them. The last thing Augie Baxter wanted was to be the lost soul cliché at a cocktail party who is asked about the film or novel he talks about year in and year out that will never be complete.

His professional failures and roads not taken were foremost on his mind. He had become much too good at beating himself up. To combat what felt like a low-grade depression, he started looking at himself in the mirror every morning and repeating the words, “I am my future self.” There was no time left to wait for a stronger, braver person to appear and do all the heavy lifting. If there were sacrifices and changes to be made (that had no guarantee of working out, but that at least offered the possibility of a more satisfying and fulfilling existence) they had to be made now. Augie had to start shifting his thoughts and behavior – now - before it was too late. The mental beatings had to stop, as they continued day in and day out. They were exhausting.

            Augie knew what reactions to expect from people who watched his D grade cable reality television shows. The bar was set low. But anticipating the reactions from an audience regarding his own thoughts and ideas up on screen, his attempts to be taken seriously, was terrifying. Putting himself “out there” would force him to face many of his fears and insecurities. Would he have the “goods?” Did he ever have the “goods” or is he just that cliché? Was he okay with failing? Was he okay with just trying?

With three kids and a mortgage in Chappaqua, he knew this dream had nothing to do with a “make a movie, get rich quick scheme.” He had been in the entertainment business long enough to know that it rarely happened like that. He just wanted to do it, not just talk about making a film – but to

“put it in the can,” and complete it.

Was his dream to be an artist selfish? Maybe, his wife definitely thought so, but he had yet to be brave enough to change his life to such a degree to be an artist. With so many arguments at home regarding money and his career there was no way he could justify a Pied-a-terre in NYC to his wife. She HATED Liz Street.

He did try to show enthusiasm for his best friend - he did. He acknowledged JR’s burst of energy since meeting his new wife, that he appeared younger, and more optimistic than his normally cynical self. He exuded lightness and talked about the future. JR’s self-imposed rut since graduating college was over, that was a fact. It was selfish for Augie to want to keep the JR from twenty years ago suspended in time. He had to let JR go, he had to let Liz Street go - but after this weekend.

Augie was fair skinned, with a slightly wrinkled face covered in a few pale moles. One night

after work in Hell’s Kitchen a drunken girl, loudly chomping on a hot dog at Rudy’s on Ninth Avenue, called him a dead ringer for Ewan Macgregor. Easily influenced by the power of suggestion, this

chance encounter motivated Augie to dress in a shirtless, glam rock “Velvet Goldmine” costume that Halloween, with lycra hot pants, platform shoes, and glitter covering him from head to toe. (His daughter enjoyed playing with the black feather boa.) Oh, how he still loved to shock people! He loved to pretend he was someone else – a character.

Publicly, Augie was a husband, a father, and a reality television shows Producer, a show-off. Privately, he was a voyeur, a Momma’s boy, and a tantric masturbator. He loved to fantasize, and he’d always enjoyed watching others. This attribute should have been leveraged to make him a great film director, but instead it made him emotionally distant during sex. He often imagined himself in a scene from one of his favorite movies, or a new one that he invented on the spot. Unfortunately, his lover was the last to know, as it wasn’t a shared fantasy. He never thought anyone could comprehend where he was coming from or how his mind worked; so many movies, books, songs, photographs and paintings were stuck in his head, influencing his life constantly. But he was lonelier without an outlet, or person, to share these ideas with.

That twilight signaled the end of a longer countdown weighing heavily on his mind, twenty-four-seven all that past week. It had made him compartmentalize and deny the impending loss of Liz Street. It had made him downplay the excitement of his best friend’s surprise wedding. It had made him question himself a thousand different ways.

Men At Work's song “It's a Mistake” played, and then quickly ended, in the stereo inside his brain. Augie’s days often progressed with a private, interior soundtrack playing. The stereo was a Technics with a heavy volume dial. No, he thought, it's not.

            “Are you sure you won't be bored?” Jacob Reynolds, (affectionately known as “JR”) now a newlywed, asked, entering the driver’s seat.

JR was six feet tall with thick salt and pepper dark brown hair and brown eyes. He had bushy black eyebrows and a near permanent five o’clock shadow. He was known in Uptown singles social

circles as the “Jewish George Clooney.” A “gentleman” in the economic sense, he neverhadtowork

for a living, unlike Augie who not only supported a wife and kids, but his mother and sister.

“I’ll give the doorman a double to help me bring it up to my new place,” JR told him.

            “Oh, so he gets twenty dollars out of you and I only get a hernia,” Augie teased.

            “You’ve had thousands of dollars’ worth of free lodging on Liz Street. You owe me buddy. At

least now you can’t mooch off my good will anymore.”

            “You’re a regular Roosevelt, JR. Noblesse Oblige!”

For over twenty years, JR enjoyed his apartment on Elizabeth Street. Augie first found the

apartment back in 1993, following their college graduation. Martin Scorsese’s family lived across the street, and Augie was in the process of stalking them. Raised by a genteel Southern mother, Augie insisted on helping Nonna Girardi carry her groceries and was awarded first dibs on her large, empty apartment.

“I forgot that term, Noblesse Oblige. I promised my mother that I’d get Stacy on some kind of Board soon…maybe the Junior League?” JR answered Augie, sitting in his truck outside Liz Street.

            “And that my friend are what’s known as white people problems.”

            “White people problems,” JR snickered.

“Hey, I found this place, remember? Cheap rent, no Broker fee, and an endless supply of

home cooked meals by Mrs. Girardi.”

The brand new, gold band on JR’s left hand broke Augie’s concentration for a moment. Then

he looked down at his own wedding band.

            “New York's dead on the weekends,” JRadded,pullingsomekeysoffofhiskeychainand

handing them to Augie, “Moving truck will be back on Monday, so please let them in.I'llbeona

beach.”

            “On your honeymoon,” Augie finished.

            “God, that sounds weird!” JR beamed. “Can you believe Stacy spent seven grandona

dress for City Hall? City Hall, Augie! I told her I didn't want a big wedding, becauseoftheage

difference and everything, and that I didn't want to make a scene. Seven grand!”

            “Andtothink,allyouroldgirlfriendsusedtotiptoeoveryourmoney.Thenyoumeetacertified

gold digger…” Augie began.

            “Hey, that's my wife!” JR yelled.

            “She is, though,” Augie joked.

            “No. She’s honest and real, I respect her. Not that I don’t have an air tight pre-nup,” JR joked

back.

            “Well, maybe she was the type of girl youwantedallalong?Maybethat'swhythishasall

happened later in your life” Augie said.

            “I’m so knocking her up in St. Barths,” JR boasted.

            “Wait, you can still get it up?”

            “Believe me, for a twenty-two year old girl you can get it up.”

            “Oh shit, I thought she was at least twenty-five. Has she even graduated college?”

            “She’s on the six-year plan at Hunter.”

            “Well, you went four and a half years.”

            “She’s the one, Augie. It just is.”

            “I believe you. You’ve never said that about a girl before, and the fact that you’re spending money on her…”

            “Oh my God, you’ll love this, the bank called me, worried about the suspicious activity in my

accounts.”

            “I’m sure they did!”

            “Is it wrong that I finally met someone I want to spoil? Other than you? Don’t be jealous now.”

“No, no – I’m happy for you. Didn’t I say that before? HAPPY. Now will you please go home

and get your dick sucked by your new wife? Don’t call me, even though I know you’re going to miss me, everything’s under control here.”

            “Hey, did you take a stroll down sex memory lane, right before you got hitched?”

            “Sex memory lane? No.”

            “Lying fucking bastard. I know you did. I did, and you know who came to mind as a top performer? You’ll never guess!”

            “No idea”

            “Louise! Louise from…”

            “College?” Augie blurted as this was too odd that JR was talking about college girls, that one specifically this day of all days. “She treated you like garbage, remember?”

            “And I fucking loved it.”

            “You did.”

            “Don’t know why you’re defending her, you treated her roommate like shit and she loved you.

What’s her name?”

            “Benny…” Augie answered. He was saying her name aloud, to JR. Did JR know something?

            “When someone lets you treat them like that, it’s impossible to love them. You could have never loved that girl…”

            “Benny.” What was going on here?

            “You have to respect someone to love them, or at least, that’s what I’ve learned.”

            “You respect Stacy…the twenty-two year old,”

            “She nearly broke the Sports book at Caesars Palace, Augie. Of course I respect her!”

            “But seriously, St. Barths, in the summer?” Augie asked, changing the subject, still paranoid

about JR’s college reference. Sweat dripped down from his forehead, stinging his eyes. He felt dizzy, he needed to eat something. But it was so hot…

            “You know I only do off-season with the locals,” JR, oblivious, quipped.

“Me, too,” Augie agreed; he had to be different, not the norm.

“Have fun in the sleepy city. Hey, just so you know, the air conditioning is on the fritz.”

            “You bastard, why couldn't you get it fixed?”

            “I don’t live here anymore, remember? I haven’t lived here in months! I might betouring

preschools this spring. I’m trying to grow up. Make my own kid instead of acting like one. Believe me, I'll catch up to you sooner than you can say, “demon spawn.” I even stopped smoking pot a month ago, hoping the boys can swim.”

            “Wow, this girl has changed you.”

            Has it been so long, Augie, that you can't remember when a girl changes you?