*This is a rare fiction piece I wrote a little over a year ago. It's the culmination of a few stories I've heard from talking to some homeless in Washington D.C. It's entirely fiction with just a sprinkle of real life situations.*
Dark, deep and daunting…that's the city for ya. I been here all my life, ya know, and it's one thing I know real well--this here city. I know the fastest way to get from Midtown to 42nd, the best route to get through Greenwhich village and, well, of course I know where they got the strongest drinks and all.
But one thing I don't know much about is those big buildings. Man, let me tell you, I ain't never stepped a foot in one of those buildings there. Yeah, it's probly cause they got those friggin' rent-a-cops guarding every door, and they see my raggy clothes and stuff, and they quickly tell me I better leave before they make me. Man, they always been doing that to me.
So like I was telling ya, I ain't never gotten one foot in them things! I've been in an elevator before, at a mall off the subway, but I always like bein' in the ones with all them fancy buttons. Like, you click the button that says "Floor 66" and then it takes you like 20 minutes to get up there. I mean, it'd have to take that long, right? I really dunno, but I know the elevators at the malls are like that. You click the button that says "Floor 3" and it takes like two whole minutes to get up there! Man, it's ridiculous if you ask me.
Oh, what I would give to just be able to go up one of those buildings there. I'd even kill, believe me I really mean that, to see all them city lights from so high up. Yeah, I seen the pictures and stuff…but it ain't the same. It's kind of like hearing some bum tryin' to sing a song you love. It just ain't the same. You know, like you know the words, and the bass line, and that part where the drums go all wild and stuff, but then you gotta hear this old crazy man doing your song all wrong. It just ain't right, ya hear?
So let me tell you my story. It's about a building, the really big one, it's called "The Empire State Building". Always thought it was funny name, since we don't have an empire here in America. Anyway, I said to myself, "Gregory, you been in this city here for like 35 years and you isn't never gonna go up in that building there." And I didn't like that. Now, one thing you gotta know about me, ya hear now--if I don't like something, I do something about it. If I don't like how I'm hungry, I go find me some food and dig right in. Like a hoagie! God I love me some hoagies. Or if I don't like how I'm feeling, I find me a real nice pretty girl to talk to, and she'll raise my spirits better then a beer would any day. So when I realized that I could never make it up in the building, ya know, cause of those damned rent-a-cops, I decided I was just gonna do something about it.
I already knew that I ain't so good at fitting in. My teeth aren't always sparkling shiny clean, my hair can be kind of messy sometimes…but there wasn't anything I could do 'bout that. But, I knew if I could find myself a good outfit, man I'd be set. Those rent-a-cops wouldn't even look at me, ya know? But, well, I never got money lying around, so how was I gonna get me a good outfit so I could see the city from all the way up? I get tired of begging, talking to those old gold baggers who won't even drop me a buck or two, so I wasn't gonna do it like that. Not my style, no way.
A song though. Yeah, that would do it. There was this one place, it's off of 36th, and they got some nice clothes that they sell for real cheap. They got bright colors, man I love me the color blue, and they had lots of it there. And, let me tell you, there is this girl who works there. Man, she a beauty. She like, needs to go on TV or something, cause I have never seen a prettier girl! But hey now, don't be thinking I am some, ya know…yeah. I respect pretty girls. I just like talking them, seeing them smile, make them laugh. Which, just so you know, is my specialty. Girls always laugh when they talk to Gregory Prowell!
My plan was so good, and I knew it. Write a song for that girl so once she heard the song, she'd give me a shirt and maybe a pair of pants. I had a little money, but not enough. The song would totally do it for her.
I wish you could hear this song! Man, it was so good. I spent all day and night on it, in the park, and when I finished it I had never been so proud. I had written some songs before, but nothing like this. I wrote it about that girl, and I called it, "Coffee with a Little Whipped Cream". Now, don't be laughing at me! I was serious here. Nothing is better then coffee with a little whipped cream, don't even try to deny that one, so I wrote that song for her so she would know that she was the only thing better then coffee with a little whipped cream.
There was just no way she couldn't hear it. It was too damn good of a song for her to miss it, so I found my way to her little shop and told her I had a present for her. I walked right up to her, the girl with the pretty brown locks, and I said, "Now young lady, what is your name?" She didn't really respond at first, she just kind of stared back at me, like I was crazy or something. I got kind of scared, seeing how she wasn't saying anything and just blankly staring at me with those big brown eyes. I was feeling really nervous, but then I remembered my favorite line from the song. "If there ever was a gorgeous morning, it was the day that my eyes laid…such fancy on you, my baby, where beauty was truly made." I thought of that line, and I thought of how God had to have made her as proof. You know what I mean? Proof that He knows what he's doin'. Cause if God wasn't showing off with this girl, then I don't know if He could.
So I didn't hold back. No, no. I said, "Young lady, you don't even need to tell me your name. But I'll tell you mine. It's Gregory--Gregory Prowell." She kind of lowered her head for a bit, the kind of thing girls do when they try to hide their beautiful smiles, and then she lifted her eyes, just her eyes, so she was giving me that look, and then said, "Hi Gregory. I'm Alicia." Oh, baby! Hot dog was I going nuts! Her smile was just like a taxi cab running me over at 90 miles an hour. I was floored just by hearing her talk! I tried to remain cool, tried to be like I always am, but then I just sort of fell...under her spell or something. I couldn't move or nothin'. But then, ya know, I thought of another line I just loved, and that was, "So many things in my life, I have tried to understand…but what you do to me, baby, I'll never comprehend." I was proud of that line, I used a big word. Com-pre-hend.
As I was saying, though, I thought about that line and realized I still hadn't told her about my gift. "Well my friend Alicia, I have a very special present for you." She smiled at that. "Now don't think I'm crazy, but here is your present." And right there and then I sang it for her. No introductions, nothing. And oh baby did I sing it for her! I don't think I ever belted out a tune as pretty as I did that day. I was doing such a good job that people's heads were turning around, their ears were all listening good on what I had to sing. It was almost as if I were a big politician. You know those big wigs who get on TV and everbody will stop what they're doing to watch them? Well, for the first time in my life, I was like one of them. I didn't have a pretty outfit on, or some speech someone else wrote for me...but I had my song, and this song was a tune that got every boy and girl in that clothes shop to pay me some respect.
Finishing up that song was a feeling I ain't never gone through before. My heart was all banging against my chest, my forehead was kind of sticky since I was nervous and all, but even worse was the feeling of silence after my last note of the song. It was only two, maybe three seconds, but it had to have been the longest silence I had ever gone through. But ya see, after those few seconds, this one girl began clapping. And not just a few claps here and there, no this was a really fast, hand pumping clapping. The kind I'd hear in church, back when Momma used to take me. Man, you ever think about how hard they clap their hands in church? I used to ask Momma if their hands would hurt, but she'd always yell at me saying I was being disrespectful.
But it was crazy! All of the sudden, all of the people in the store are clapping their hands for me! And there she stood, my beautiful Alicia, with those round brown eyes, looking back into my eyes with a gorgeous smile. That smile. Man, she didn't even need to say anything. I just knew she was so damn happy. "Gregory," she said, "that was a really pretty song. And...you wrote that? As a present to me?"
"Why yes I did my ma'am!" I responded, high on something from all that clapping.
"But why? I think I've seen you...maybe two times before? And I never even got your name those times!"
"Yeah, maybe...but those times were the nicest times I think I ever had." I got her with that one, I know I did.
"Well...thank you Gregory. I'm not even sure what to say. That was just...really sweet of you."
"Now Alicia, you don't got to worry about what to say. Leave that to me. I like to talk, ya know. And that's what I want to do with you. Talk. I wanted to tell you about a very special dream I got. It's a dream that I ain't never thought of before. Why I haven't thought of this dream...well, I'm just not too sure...but it came to me the other day and I wanted to tell you all about it."
"What is that dream? Do you want a job here?" Oh she got me with that one! I busted out a big, full laugh, cause there would be no way I'd wanna work in a clothing shop like hers. I mean, don't get me wrong, it'd be a great job...but I like my life now. It's simple.
"Nah, baby, I don't want a job here. But, I do want some clothes from here. And I just don't got the money. I know you get people from all over the world here in this store of yours, but I'm coming to you from New York. This is my home, just as it is yours. And that dream I was telling you about, it's about this city we live in. I want to see this city from that big building just down the way there...ya know The Empire State Building? I been in livin' here for 35 years now, and I think it's time I get to the top. Only thing is, I need me an outfit that won't get those stupid rent-a-cops all up in my face."
Alicia sure did laugh when I called them "rent-a-cops". You would'd thought she'd never heard them called that before!
"Well Gregory, you want to go up to The Empire State Building? And they won't let you because of your attire?"
"Yes ma'am, that would be correct." I was all proud of myself, I sounded like a professor or someone smart.
"I'd love to help Gregory, but I-"
"Oh don't give me that, sugar! I have $15.42! There gots to be something, I don't care what it looks like, but SOMETHING you can help me out with. I don't care if it is bright pink and says "Hot Momma" on it. Actually, if you had that I would like that please." Oh boy did she laugh at that! I'm just too damn good with the ladies, ain't I?
"Ok...for $15.42 I think I could find you a T-shirt. And maybe some shorts. It won't be the prettiest-"
"Baby, only you could be the prettiest." I said, even giving her a little wink. Boy did she smile at that one.
"Give me a second and I'll go see what I can do."
Alicia walked back to the part of the store where nobody else but employees can go. I always wanted to walk back in those parts of stores and see what was so special that normal people couldn't go back there. I bet they had jelly doughnuts just sitting around for everybody, 'cept all them people already had their fill, so a few extra just sat there with no one to eat them. That surely would be a tragedy.
It wasn't but a minute or two until my baby Alicia came walking back through those doors. And in her hands, she had a special present even for me. The shorts were those khaki colored things, and she also had in her hand a bright blue shirt! How did she know I just loved the color blue?
"Well I know it isn't much, but I found these on clearance and I think-"
"Alicia, these gots to be the nicest clothes I have ever seen!" Ok, so I lied, but you gotta do that to the ladies. You tell them the truth about their weight and then they smack you! Then they eat a jelly doughnut. I love women.
"I don't know if they're the nicest clothes" she said, "but they're all yours. Don't even worry about the $15.42. You'll need that to get to the top of The Empire State Building."
"Hold up, they charge to go up into that thing?" I asked her.
"Yeah, I'm not sure how much, but it's something." She said, now talking all serious and not smiling like she was before.
"Well I'll just have to make them change that for Gregory Prowell!" And of course that got a little smile outta my baby girl Alicia!
Alicia handed me the clothes, them nice shorts and cool blue shirt, and then said, "I'm still not too sure what to say...your song...it was just beautiful."
"That's all that matters, sugar. A beautiful song for a beautiful girl." And with that I walked away from her.
Wasn't but a minute after I walked out of the store that I already missed that girl. I mean, there wasn't no way she'd ever like a bum like me, but I don't think in all my years I had ever met a beautiful woman as nice as she. Like, think about it, I sit on the streets all day asking for money. I don't even stand up or anything. But with what I do, I run into a whole lotta bitches. I'm sorry to call them that, but it's what they are. They all walk by with their nice suits and crap, holding a cup of Starbucks they just paid $20 for, then say they don't have money to give me for food. Or beer. Bitches, I say. Bitches.
Anyway, I had to go find me a place to change. I was so excited I didn't even care where I did it! I ran into a back alley and threw off my old clothes, not even giving a damn that they landed in a pool of nasty water, and put on my new blue shirt so fast it'd make your head spin twice. And boy did I look good! Now it was a bit big and all, only giving Gregory Prowell more room to grow a belly, but that shirt sure was a beauty.
You ever read about that stuff in books and magazines called "Symbolism"? Well, I have once before. They say that people will see things or stuff, and it'll like...remind them of a time in their life, or it will be like a symbolism of something changing. Well, if there ever was a symbolism in my life, it was putting on these new clothes. Let me tell you, I don't think I ever felt that so damn good 'bout myself! Like I just looked so friggin' good.
Walking out of that alley had to be some kind of a symbolism too, cause I saw that big building off in the distance and starting marching after it. Man, I was moving so fast, I got there in like 5 minutes--which in New York is pretty damn fast. I hustled through all them people, all in with their Starbucks in one hand and a cell phone in another, and stood before one of the biggest buildings in the city. I looked straight up at it, almost hurting my neck in doing so, and felt just so nice. Nicer then I had felt in a long time.
My outfit was on. My smile was kickin'. I was so ready to do this, you would just not believe.
The doors opened, and in I walked into The Empire State Building. And GOD DAMN was this place beautiful! The entire place was marble, like a dark color of sorts, and it was packed with people. Thousands of people were in this building to do the same thing I was--get to the top. All these people here, and I doubt any of them had as big of a dream as I did.
Off on the left was the security people. I had to walk through this machine, I guess it sensed for guns or something, and when I walked through those rent-a-cops didn't even look at me! I showed them, didn't I now? I just looked so damn good, so I made my way through and hopped myself into line. And boy was that a long line! You had to stand in line for like 15 minutes for each floor, cause all of these people had to see this city from the top. And it got me thinking, why is it so special to see the city from so high up? Why not just go to the city, to central park, to the statue of liberty...instead of just looking at it from a distance. But then it hit me...I think that's how people really are. You know what I mean? People like to stay far away. Like, when I'm sitting down and begging for some money to get me some food, some will drop me a buck or two, but they never stay and talk with me. I have had that happen maybe three times in all my years, ya know? But that's what people are like. They like to see you from a distance, but not get too close. Well, I'll tell you one thing--that ain't Gregory Prowell! Ya hear me now, I ain't like that!
Speaking of getting close, I was almost to the top. I had been in line for like two hours now, thinking of how every floor I was going up was a symbolism for me. Man, I felt all out smart for once, doing all this symbolism thinking now.
But at the top, of the line that is, there was a man. Yeah, and this man, he was all short and Chinese or something, he was collecting money. China man didn't really smile or anything, he didn't even look at the people as he took their money, and he had this hat on. It looked like the kind a pilot should wear or something, but it was pretty cool if ya ask me. So when I stepped up to him, I told him. I said, "Sir, I just think you got the nicest hat." And when he looked back at me, he had this face. It almost scared me. It was a mix of fear and disgust, as if why in the world I was talking to him. It hurt.
"It's fifteen dollars to get in. Do you even have that?" Oh when he said that I just wanted to punch him in the face. That'd show him!
"Of course I got that! And I was kidding 'bout your hat. I think it reminds me of a drunken skunks behind!"
Momma always used to say that. I'm not really sure why, cause if there ever was a drunken skunk I'd like to know how he got his booze, but she meant it as a bad thing. And when I said it, I meant it as a bad thing too. He didn't even care though. He just took my fifteen bucks, thank God for Alicia being some damn sweet and not taking what I had, and he said I could step into the elevator. I was finally going into the top.
There they were. All them damn fancy buttons I always dreamed about. They were all shiny, almost as if everytime somebody pressed one of them, a man came running in and shined them again, just to make sure they looked just perfect. And boy did they! There was all these buttons, for like all these different floors, and I just got so damn excited I couldn't keep it in. I had to do something. So what did I do?
I sang my song.
Not quietly, now. No, no. I belted out that tune again. I had to, anyway, cause the music in the elevator just plain sucked.
Every neck in that elevator turned and stared at me as if I was crazy or drunk or both. And maybe I was! Drunk and crazy on being so damn happy. You see, here I was, in a nice outfit, in a nice elevator, on a nice day, and I was living out my dream. I was going to the top of The Empire State Building. So there was no way I wouldn't be singin' on such a nice day.
I sang 'til those elevator doors opened up, and when they did I just had to stop. The light was so damn bright, cause all the way up on top there ain't no buildings to block it, and I was just speechless. Couldn't think of a word to say--and that never happens to Gregory Prowell. But I walked to the window, really slowly now, and just stared down at this city that I grew up in. And everything hit me at once, like a double shot of 151 rum. It was just friggin' crazy. Right before me was every memory I had ever gone through. Like, I saw off in the distance 102nd street, and I remembered how I ran away from Momma and she began yelling at me, "Get your tiny little black ass back here or I'm gonna whoop it so hard the black will jump right outta you!" Then I looked at 89th Street, and I remembered how Momma saw my Dad in a bar there, and she all rushed me outta there, and I had no clue why. And he came out after us, all drunk and stuff, and he called my mom the "C" word. I don't even say that word, it's just that bad. But boy did she flip out! She put him in his place in two seconds flat, faster then any Fighter Jet could fly, if you ask me.
Then I looked at Central Park, and I thought of all memories I had there. Playing chess with Mob-Al, a friend of mine who begs by the Mobil gas station so he calls himself Mob-Al, or petting all the dogs and just watching how happy they are. Or seeing the families with all their kids! People playing with frisbees, or couples walking around holding hands. I just love happy people. Truly I do.
And, boy, then I looked at all the other big buildings! They were everywhere, I couldn't find a single place in that city without a big building, and I was getting so friggin' excited at everything that was before me.
And then I saw 49th Street, way off in the distance now, and I remembered the pretty girl who worked at the coffee shop, and how she always knew I liked my coffee with whipped cream. I'd walk in, with my $1.50, and she'd just start pouring that coffee. Didn't even need to ask me. And she never charged me for the whipped cream. There was a sign saying it was an extra 50 cents, but she never put on my bill. And then I began thinking. There are some crazy people in this world, people who get mad if you tell them you like their hat, people who drink too much and embarrass ya, and people who hurt your feelings so bad you don't even want to wake up the next day. But, once you get through all of that...there are some good people. People who will listen to your song. People who will love you no matter what you look like. People who will remember the way you like your coffee. And when I thought of that, of all the good people in this world, all the people I was staring down upon from this big building...I realized something. Life just ain't that bad.