From “Street Life”
On Any Corner
She was cold. The fake fur around her shoulders wouldn't keep it out, any more than the phoney flames flickering in the bar windows. She shivered and huddled deeper into the doorway, clamping her teeth to prevent their chattering. People came-- largely couples crawling up from from Wall Street, laughing heartily among themselves as they weaved in and out of the islands of light, their faces bloated and cheery from drink.
She stepped before them, a wavering smile touching her thin painted lips. They egnored her, moving around her as if she didn't exist, without pause in their conversation. They vanished as quickly as they came, into the creeky doors of trendy dock side establishement or shouting down cabs in the fog.
The wind moved the fog deeper into the city, covering and uncovering secret little treasures, blowing fast-food wrappers along the curb. One flattened itself around Mamey's stocking'd leg.
"Damn it," she said, snatching it off, her long red nail leaving a hole where the paper had been.
A bar light flashed on and off behind her, the sign reading "Heaven's Abode." It was surrounded by two eccentric angels whose sly eyes shifted with each blink. One of the bar doors openned with a groan, turning Mamey immediately from her sidewalk march.
A well-dress man with short hair and a long overcoat eased out, staggering slightly, pausing at the edge of the fog to light a cigarette, the match illuminating his features-- a young, downtown business exectutive clean-shaven.
"The damned fool," he mumbled.
"Hey, honey," Mamey said. "You want a date?"
He looked up sharply, his hard gaze surveying her with disgust.
"Get the hell out of here," he, crushing the half-smoked cigarette under his heel. "I'm from Jersey, but that doesn't make me stupid. I don't mess with grandmothers."
He slipped away into the fog.
"You son of a bitch!" Mamey yelled. "You probably do it in a towel!"
Her voice died, but she regretted her reaction. All she needed was for Kracko to hear her.
Grandmother? She didn't look a day over thirty.
"Well that was clever," someone said from another darkened doorway.
"Kracko, honey!" Maney said, flashing a smile at the smooth-faced black man who appeared in the light, a flobby straw hat pushed down over his eyes. He stopped a yard away and pushed up his hat with a forefinger.
"You look like I feel after a week of drinking," he said. "Was that a mark I saw walking away from here, baby-cakes?"
Mamey nodded dumbly.
"Then why didn't you hit on him?"
"I did hit on him, Kracko. But he was in an awful hurry."
"Hurrying to get away from you, you mean!"
"But he didn't want nothing, Kracko."
"Damn it, woman. A man's a man, and a good lady knows how to make him want something. Right now he's probably headed uptown to get himself a younger piece. One of Dell's little girls."
"I get them sometimes, Kracko," Mamey said, sagging against the cool metal of the lamp post.
"When? You ain't had a trick in a week. That ain't exactly knocking `em dead."
"I know, I know," she said, her head down.
"Well if you know so much, why ain't you doing something about it? Or ain't that got into your head yet either?"
She looked up, her eyes questioning, blinking thick blue eyeshadow to the skin below her brow.
"The scene, girl. Can't you dig the scene?" Kracko spread his hands. "Don't this look like the end of the world to you? There ain't a whole lot more steps down from here, Baby-cakes. If you can't make it here, it's out with the dish water, dig?"
"I'm trying, Kracko."
"I'm trying, Krac-ko," Kracko mocked. "I'm trying! What kind of talk is that? Trying don't pay no bills. It don't keep no loan sharks off my ass neither. Those uptown boys ain't exactly Chase Manhattan bank when it comes to waiting on payment."
"I thought you had a drug thing going," Mamey said. "Doesn't that pay?"
Kracko's cool expression cracked slightly as he glanced hurried away in the direction of the river. The sound of water came, flapping against the dock side, spreading an uneven rhythm to the various strains of music escaping from bar doors and apartment windows.
"Drugs ain't exactly blooming either," he mumbled. "Some fool politician's always cracking down. If it ain't the city, then it's the state, and if it ain't the state, it's the feds." He spat off to the side then shook his head. "But it's always the little guy that gets cracked down on, if you dig. All those Park Ave dudes with their big cars and facny titles skip on by with a little plug to the mayor or Governor. I ain't got cash enough to pay for my laundry. How am I suppose to pay the man?"
"I didn't know, Kracko. I thought you were rolling in dough."
Kracko's face split into a web-work of lines. "Now ain't that some asset," he said. "A bitch that thinks. Don't you dig it yet? You ain't supposed to think, you're supposed to pitch. Cause when the uptown boys come to collect, I'd better have bucks to give them-- of we's both out. You out of a job. Me out of my skin."
They stood silent for a moment as another wave of fog rolled in, separating them, like large grey hands of giant reaching in towards the heart of the city. The volume of music rose with the openning bar door. A young blond girl stepped out, reeking of New Jersey. She couldn't been more than seventeen, though she staggered slightly as she descended the step, holding her polished nails across her lips as she burbed.
Kracko straightened, the lines fading again as he gaze grew interested. "Now ain't she sweet."
"Take it easy, Kracko," Mamey said. "That girl's jail bait if I ever saw it."
A sly look shifted its way towards Mamey. "If that's so, why she drunk? No bartender gonna serve a sweet face like that unless she got credentials saying she's of age."
"There's ways of getting those," Mamey said. "You know that better than anyone."
The girl stepped out from the door, the fog washing away from her bold clothing-- short gold skirt, thin black jacket. Her flowing white shirt revealed two blossoming breasts.
Kracko whistled slowly.
"Paul?" the girl said, her voice tentative. "Where are you, Paul. Don't kid around like this. You're not being funny."
"She must be with the boy I saw," Mamey said.
"Was with," Kracko said. "She ain't with nobody now."
"Paul, please! I didn't mean anything by what I said in there. You look as macho as any of those dock men, honest."
But her words were lost like smoke to the swirling fog-- a tug horn hooted from the river.
"Damn," she hissed and kitched at the curb, then slumped against the brick wall, her arms folded across her chest.
Kracko smiled, glancing at Mamey.
"Why don't you go dig up that mark again," he said, tugging down on his jacket sleeves, one at a time, as if cracking his knuckles.
"He's long gone by this time. Besides, he wasn't interested. Marks just aren't the same these days. They don't seem to be as interested in sex as they used to be."
Kracko eyed Mamey spuriously "I wonder why."
"Maybe it's the place, Kracko. Most of the men that come down here, come for booze not women, and by the time they leave their so dead drunk they don't want anything but a place to lay down. Maybe we could go uptown some and find us a better place, where the cliental has more class."
"Marks are always looking for sex, baby-cakes," Kracko said, eyeing the girl near the bar door. "it ain't the neighborhood. Besides, we've been uptown already. Remember?"
"To yuppie bars. That doesn't count. Yuppies want money, not me."
"Don't start that diabribe again," Kracko moaned. "Yuppies like women well enough, and they got money enough to pay for the ones they want. What they got sick of was seeing this old whore outside their door, getting older and fatter right before their eyes."
"I'm not that heavy, Kracko," Mamey protested. "And I'm losing it, honest."
"Losing, my ass! I'll bet you gained another pound or two just today."
The girl looked up, apparently aware of the voices, her dialated eyes narrowing as the faces of Mamey and Kracko appeared with the shifting fog.
"Paul?" the girl said, her voice growing stronger. "Please, Paul. I'm getting cold."
"It's not like I don't diet," Mamey continued. "I hardly eat anything all day. It's just that the more I try to lose, the more I seem to gain."
"Maybe you can diet off the wrinkles while you're at it."
Mamey looked up sharply, her expression pained. "Kracko?"
"Paul?" the girl asked.
"Let's face it, Baby-cakes," Kracko said to Mamey. "Your days as a street walker are numbered."
"Don't say that, Kracko. I'll loose weight. I promise. And I'll knock them dead, just like I used to."
Kracko laughed. "You never knocked them dead. Not when I got you. You were always the motherly type. Some marks like to be mothered. But face it, none of them wants to go to bed with a bitch that looks like their mother."
"Paul?" the girl said, her sharp heals clicking on the side walk as she moved first one way then the other, coming to the wall of white, stopping. "Quit kidding Paul. It's getting cold out here. Come back. I'll make things good for you."
Kracko's eyebrows rose, as he looked across the street at the pacing girl. "Now if I had something like that to work with, Baby. I wouldn't have to worry about no mob-men coming to break my legs. I wouldn't have no other pimps laughing behind my back either."
"She's too young."
"Which goes to show how out of touch you are. Young's the way marks like them these days. The younger the better."
For a moment, they both fell silent, with only the clicking panicky heals of the girl filling the space where traffic horns might have on a clear night. A deep fog horn sounded again from the river, then the cough of someone moving through the white with a shuffled step.
The drunk staggered into view on the far side of the street, stopping short at the sight of the girl, a lusting grin smeared across his bubbling mouth.
"S-Say, now ain't you the c-cute one," the drunk said. "Why d-don't you and m-m-me step around the corner for a little f-fun?"
"Fuck off," the girl snapped. "My boyfriend's around here and he's a big man."
But the drunk's grin never wavered. "Oh come on, honey," he said, grabbing at her arm. "I don't see no bad wolf around here?"
"I told you to leave me alone!" the girl said, yanking her arm free.
"You got a problem, girl?" Kracko shouted as he crossed the street.
The girl looked up gratefully. "Yeah. This man here won't leave me alone."
"Is that so?" Kracko growled, looking over the drunk. "You got some problem, man?"
The drunk staggered back, eyeying Kracko's hard exterior, blinking and wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
"Problem? N-No problem-- except that your damned whore won't come along with me. And it ain't like I can't pay."
The drunk pulled out a wad of bills, waving them under the girl's nose.
"I'll come with you, sweetheart," Mamey said, striding across the street, her thin lips quivering as she tried to smile.
The drunk looked at her, his face tightening around the jaw. "I don't want to go with you."
"Because I don't," the drunk said. "I want this one or nobody." The drunk peered at Kracko. "What k-kind of g-game are you playing here, putting this young thing out like b-bait."
"I'm not anyone's bait!" The girl said. "I don't know what any of your are talking about. I'm just out here looking for my boyfriend. We had a fight and he walked out on me. I know he's not far away. He wouldn't go far from me. So if you people don't watch yourselves, he'll show you what a college line-backer can do."
"Horseshit!" the drunk said, spitting off into the gutter. "Damn whores can't be trusted for nothing."
He staggered back into the fog still cursing.
"Hey, Pal!" Kracko shouted. "Come back. I'll give you a discount on the old whore. She ain't near as bad as she looks. Besides, what difference does it make. They all look the same with the lights off!"
"Shut up, Kracko," Mamey said. "I wouldn't do it with that mark if he paid me double."
"Shut up? Since when have you gotten so uppity, baby-cakes?"
"Since you started renting me out on discount."
"I wouldn't have to if you earned your way."
"I've done fine by you, Kracko," Mamey said. "You just don't appreciate what I've done-- you're not the one that has to crawl into the sack with some of these slime-buckets."
Kracko sighed. "You know, baby-cakes. That's your problem. You're just too selective. This ain't the kind of business where you can pick and choose. You dig? Especially looking like you do. Now if you looked like this chick here, that would be a different story."
Kracko stepped back and looked over the girl. She shook her hair back and smiled.
"It's nice to be appreciated by someone," she said, half-heartedly. "I don't know what's gotten into Paul, leaving me here like this. It wasn't like we had a terrible row or anything. Not like the one we had on the way through the tunnel. You'd think by the way he acted, he'd planned to leave me here."
Kracko's smile widened. "Hey, you know how marks are, sweety. Can't trust them to do what they say."
"I don't know," the girl said. "I thought I could trust Paul. He's always been so sweet to me, telling me not to worry about anything, telling me about this perfect little lovenest place over in the city where we could get it on."
She looked back at the bar and shivered.
"This place, I asked him. It looks like a dump. But he said it wasn't so easy getting me served with my sweet face-- if I looked older, I could get in at some of the uptown places. But I got ID as good as anyone's."
She plucked out her wallet and held up the fake driver's license, which Kracko politely examined.
"She looks like you," he said, "But no bartender's gonna believe you're twenty one."
"That's what Paul said, too. But this place? It must be cleaner in the sewer!" She shivered again and looked to the fog. "Now I don't know how I'm going to get home."
"There's always the bus, Honey," Mamey said.
"A bus?" the girl said, looking queerly at Mamey.
"Don't tell me you never heard of one of those, dear? You can get one uptown at the Port Authority, just about any time night or day."
The girl's shoulders shrugged helplessly. "I could if I had any money. But Paul was so sweet. Paul insisted I leave everything but my id under the seat of the car. `My treat,' he told me. `Don't want you to get it into your head to spend anything for yourself.'"
"Money's no problem," Kracko said, his long arm sweeping around the girl's small shoulder. "But we can't have you walking those dangerous uptown streets all alone. Maybe I should escort you up there to make sure you get on all right?"
The girl looked up gratefully.
"Oh, that would be too kind of you," she said. "But all I really need is enough money for a phone call-- God knows who I'd call. Pauly obviously won't come. And father...."
She shuddered again.
"No, no, sweety," Kracko said. "Money ain't a problem when you look like you do. We could pick up enough for the bus just flapping your lashes."
"Kracko," Mamey said, grabbing the man's arm. "Don't be stupid. You can't go uptown-- not with those dudes looking to break your legs. You show your face above 34th street and you won't have a face to show."
"But Baby-cakes, we'd just be going to the Authorty-- not into any of those places, just a quick slip over the boundry and back without no one noticing nothing."
"With her? That'll be like no one noticing the Good Year Blimp."
The girl bristolled. "I'm not the one that looks like a blimp, lady!"
Mamey sighed. "That's not what I meant! Oh, let her go, Kracko. She really isn't what you want anyway. She doesn't have what it takes to survive the street."
"I wasn't planning on making her walk the street," Kracko said, petting the long strands of blond hair as they swept down over the girl's shoulders. "With something this foxy, I could have my own mid-town house. Wouldn't need to drag the streets any more."
"A regular street address, eh?" Mamey said, her voice thick with scorn. "Where all your friends can find you."
"Leave off me, woman!" Kracko warned. "You're getting me pissed."
"Hot under the collar, I should say. Let her go, Kracko."
"I can make it uptown myself," the girl said, blinking suddenly at the both. "Thank you just the same."
She started away, but Kracko grabbed her arm.
"Don't let Grandma here, snarl things up, sweety. I can't let you go and get yourself in trouble. This here's Sin City-- with every kind of pervert you can imagine."
"And a few you can't imagine," added Mamey.
Kracko sent a searing glance at Mamey. "Don't listen to that bitch," he said. "Cool Kracko will watch out for you, sweety, we'll take the bus uptown--" he slapped his pockets. "--Say, Mamey. I'm just about tapped out right now, you have some change you can spare?"
"You want me to pay for you and your New Jersey tramp?"
"Who's a tramp?"
"It's an investment, baby-cake."
"An investment in what?"
"Good health, retirement-- money to keep the man off me."
"And what happens to me? You've told me over and over how you'd dump me the minute something better came along."
"I was just bullshiting you," Kracko said. "Just cracking the whip a little to keep you on your toes."
"And all this time, I thought you wanted me on my back."
Kracko straightened. "You're getting uppity again, baby-cakes, and I don't like it."
"Is this the whip again? Or should I take this as something else?"
"Look, you two," the girl said. "I can see you're busy. I'll just wander off. I'm sure someone will lend me enough for a phone call home. Or maybe Paul's just in another bar, waiting for me to find him."
She took a step or two deeper into the fog, but Mamey grabbed her arm.
"You don't know men very well, do you, girl? They always disappear when you need them."
"Men don't leave me like this," the girl snarled, yanking her hand out of Mamey's. "I leave them."
Mamey laughed. "That's what we all like to tell ourselves, but when you finally look back over the years, you get to see the truth."
"I'm not interested in your life story. My Paul's different. My Paul loves me."
"Paul's a man, isn't he? Paul left you here."
"Look, ladies," Kracko said. "I'm not interested in who left who. I'm just looking for some money to keep some tough people off my back-- so I can go back uptown without fearing for my life. Now if neither of you's got cash for a bus uptown, then I propose we go and make some."
"We?" Mamey said. "I don't think there was ever a `we' in our relationship, Kracko."
"There you go again, bitch. Talking like you've been mistreated. Maybe you have, but not my me. Ever since I inherited you, I've treated you right, keeping the scum away from you, giving you your own little room...."
"A bug-infested hell-hole, where I've had to put-out for the manager twice a week or get dumped out on the street. I don't see where you had anything to do with that either. I'm just your meal-ticket, Kracko."
"And not much of one at that, dragging me down with that ugly face of yours. Now if I had a babe like this," he said, leaning towards the girl again, his slanted grin as greasy and wrong as melted margrin. "If I had her I wouldn't be waiting for some thug to break my legs. I'd be living high and mighty like those other fools, with a Park Avenue pad, thick rugs, servants and a doorman-- keeping the scum from my door."
The girl looked up sharply, her gaze losing some of the fog. She blinked at Kracko and Mamey with an odd sense of distance. "A babe like me? What exactly do you mean?"
"Come off it, Darling," Mamey said. "Even you can't be that stupid. You know what Kracko is, what I am, and what you are at heart."
"No, I don't know what you mean," the girl said, her gaze narrowing.
"Leave off her, baby-cakes," Kracko warned.
"Why? So you can start bleeding her like you did me? So I can find myself on some darkner corner with some even more desperate dude, claiming to be my man? Let her go, Kracko. Let her do her thing back in Suburbia, where she can whore herself to clean middle class boys and call it love."
"Don't call me a whore!" the girl yelled, her voice echoing from the stone and brick beyond the floating clouds of fog.
"What do you call it over there then?" Mamey asked. "What difference is there between you and me?"
"Plenty," the girl said, taking a whole step back, her shoulders shuddering. "I don't take money for doing it."
"But you take other things-- you take favors of all sorts to let cold hands touch you, a drink at the bar, a few flowers. But there's still the stranger's voice in the end, whispering love in your ear as he invades you. I'm not blaming you, darling. But every time you bend a smile or swivil your hips you're doing what I do."
"Baby-cakes, please!" Kracko moaned. "You don't know what you're blowing for me here."
The girl stared at them both-- slow comprehension draining her face, despite make-up and flashing red barlights.
"Is this all some kind of joke?" she asked. "Did Paul pay you two to do this? Is he out there somewhere listening? Okay, Paul. The joke's over."
"Look, sweety," Kracko said, easing towards the girl as the girl retreated, her heals making her stagger in her backward flight. "Mamey didn't mean anything by all that. You stick with me and we'll have more cash than you can ever spend."
"Kracko," Mamey said. "Tell her the truth. Tell her how you'll take every cent she has and when she's old and tired, you'll sell her to some other pimp."
"I told you to quit that talk, bitch!" Kracko howled without turning from his victim. "She's everything I ever dreamed of, stop trying to drive her away."
"Like you would drive me away if she stayed?"
Kracko moaned and looked upward with impatience. "You got me all wrong, baby-cakes. We'd set up house. You could be my madam-- like in all those other high class places."
The girl stared, her stern face cracking into tears. "Paul?" she said in a wavering voice. "Don't leave me here like this, Paul."
"Two pimps for one girl?" Mamey said, leaning back against the lamp post with a laugh. "Now really. We both know that won't work."
"Shut up, sweety!" Kracko said, striking her across the face with the back of his hand. "You want the cops down on us? There ain't no Paul to come rescue you, there's only me, and you'd better listen and listen good."
"Let her be, Kracko," Mamey said. "She won't stick with you, even if you beat her. She's Jersey. She's got momma and poppa to run home to....
"I told you to shut up, both of you."
"I want Paul," the girl said, sobbing.
"Maybe we can both retire," Mamey suggested. "Maybe you and me can find some small town somewhere where no one will know what we did. Wouldn't it be grand to have peace for a change?"
"Peace? I'm not looking for peace, I'm looking for magic. There's a fortune to be made out here-- these streets are paved with gold. But you need a key. You got to have that one magic ingrediant which makes it all work."
"And she's it?"
"Maybe," Kracko said. "You weren't."
He grabbed the girl and pulled her close.
"Let go of me!" the girl yelled, but his other hand clamped over her mouth. His pressed his lips to her ear.
"You don't quit screaming, girl, you'll be mighty sorry."
"No," Mamey said, charging at Kracko, yanking the girl away from. "You keep away from her. The girl isn't yours. She's just mixed up, that's all. She doesn't need to get trapped in this thing with us."
"She's a bitch," Kracko growled, trying to reach around Mamey to where the girl had retreated. Mamey knocked his hands away.
"Not this time. She's no more gold than I am. You're just chasing shadows. All this is just dead end. Even if you get her, someone'll just come along and take her from you. That's the way the street works. The only reason you still got me is because no one else wants me. You dig?"
"Help, police!" the girl yelled, yanking off her shoes and she ran up the street, her slim form vanishing into the fog like a wraith. Kracko shoved Mamey out of the way in an attempted chase.
"Come back here, girl. No one's gonna hurt you!"
"No," Mamey said, shaking her head as she laughed. "Nobody's gonna hurt you much."
Then, she slumped against the pole again and began to cry.