Downing Out in New York by Stephen Wade

Rail Bridge


Photo by Susie Sweetland


‘Downing Out in New York’ by Stephen Wade


Nobody believed me. Most of them ignored me. Just breezed by like I wasn’t there. A few, wearing tentative smiles, listened while I tried to tell them my story. Occasionally, they gave me some quarters or a couple of dollars. The odd one would even give me a ‘hang in there, buddy’ tap on the shoulder or back. And that’s what I did. I kept at it. What else could I do? I wasn’t the one to blame for this.

“Excuse me, sir. Ahem, I need to get to Boston. It’s an emergency. I was mugged. Five or six guys jumped me. Lost everything. I have relatives in Boston.” I cringed at the lies I heard spilling from my own mouth, but the actual truth sounded far too unlikely.

That bitch. I didn’t want to think about it. Futility. Wasted energy. I had to get myself out of this. Track her down. Get back what she took from me. Keep moving forward.

New York’s finest helped me to keep moving.

“But, officer,” I pleaded when I was warned I’d get done for loitering and begging. “I’m Irish. My passport’s been stolen. And my papers. There was a whole gang of them. Puerto Ricans. They had knives and baseball-bats. I was touring the States and –” I liked to change the story. I figured it would help me bide time.

“Well you better get going so,” the cop said. “You won’t see nothing standing in the same place. You’ll get your boots stole right out from under you.”

The cops were funny guys. They liked to joke and stuff. But the thing is, you couldn’t trust them. You couldn’t trust anybody. I learned that fast. Just two days after this thing happened, this old guy starts talking to me in the park. I was trying to tune into the birds’ singing when he sits down right next to me on a bench early in the morning. There were empty benches everywhere, and he sits down on my bench.

“Won’t be long now,” he said. He was looking straight ahead. I thought he was some old crazy talking to himself. “The daffodils,” he goes on. “They’re the first that’ll pop up.” He made a wheezy chuckling sound. “Then the tulips.” He twisted his whole body toward me. My stomach did a somersault looking at him. His face was a net of scabs, and the skin that wasn’t scabby was as grey as his beard.

“Right,” I said. I unfolded the newspaper I’d taken from a bin and pretended to be engrossed in how the euro was faring against the U.S. dollar.

“How long you been on the streets?” he asked.

“Me?” I said. An instant rage bubbled inside my head. “I’m travelling, you know, hitch-hiking across the country. I come from Ireland.”

I stopped myself telling this old git that I had a degree in music performance. Why was I explaining myself to this old man?

“The best thing to do is to stay put,” he said. “Keep your head down. That’s what I do. Nobody bothers you.”

The wind shifted and a vomity, rubbish-bin hum lifted off the old lad. I affected a blank stare at the middle of the pond for a few seconds, and then I dropped my head back into the newspaper. Despite his situation, the bum seemed sharp enough. He’d get the message.

People were beginning to fill up the benches nearby. I half-cupped a hand over my face, like I was shielding my eyes from the sun. There was no sun. If the old lad had confused me for one of his own, ordinary people would too. But how could they? Okay, I’d slept in a skip down an alleyway for the past two nights. In the skip was paper and office stuff. I mean it was a clean skip, and it had a roof and everything. I broke the lock. Just pulled up the lid and got in. I slept alright, considering. And my clothes were no different to every other guy my age on the street: jeans and t-shirt, a dark t-shirt. Was there something obvious about my face? I don’t mean anything heavy or telling in my countenance that gave me away, but something obvious other than a few days beard-growth. Grime maybe. I needed to see my reflection.

“Can you keep an eye on this bag for a minute?” I asked the old man.

He had his head on his chest now and his eyes were closed. He appeared to be asleep. I left the bag on the bench and hurried across to the pond. Leaving the bag sitting there was a way of holding on to my seat. I wasn’t too pushed anyway, because generally people avoided sitting next to homeless guys.

Through the lightly rippled surface on the pond I looked as I imagined I would: tired, five o’clock shadowed and tanned. And my hair looked tidy. I’ve always had a tight cut. Overall I looked like any guy you’d see in the street.

I scooped up some water with one hand and worked my fingers over my face and into my scalp. It felt good. Kind of cleared up a lot of things that had been muzzy. Who needed a jealous girlfriend anyway? Somebody who’d deliberately put temptation in your way, using one of her own friends to test your fidelity, deserved what she got. She’s the kind of cunt who’s only happy when she’s unhappy. How I ever got stuck with her in the first place I can’t answer. It’s as though she had it all planned from the start. Take me to the States to meet her mom and dad, do a road trip, the two of us, manoeuvre things so my visa runs out and I have to stay here, orchestrate the little charade with her best buddy, a girl designed by nature to bring out the animal in any normal man, come upon us unexpectedly and, bada-bing, as they say here, I’m reversing into the night-time with faulty breaks.

She goes hysterical, screaming and shouting and clawing at me with those red nails. Even attacks her friend. And this is all going on in the hotel room. She threatens to call the authorities right there and then. She’ll tell them I’m an illegal alien. It all happens in seconds. She picks up the phone-receiver and starts stabbing at the dial-pad. I kind of lose it and smash the phone off the press, only it catches her in the side. She lets out this extended scream. One of those screams you hear in movies. Now she’s bitching about assault and screaming louder. I pull on the clothes I’d been wearing, grab my bag, and am on the road. No car, no wallet and no violin.

I go back to the hotel the next day, but the guy in reception gets real ticked-off when I keep pressing him about the violin. I figured she’d have taken the wallet, no question, but she knows how I am about my music. She must have left it, I insist. He keeps up this nasty smile and repeats, in this barely-tolerating voice, how the bill was paid and the room vacated that morning. No violin was found in the room. The manager is equally unhelpful.

An adventure, that’s what it was, I told myself before twisting around and heading back to the bench. Something to tell the folks back home, if I ever got back home. And then I saw them; one on either side of my bag. Another iffy-looking character in filthy beige slacks and an angry purple complexion was sitting where I’d been sitting. He and the old bum were engaged in a conversation that sounded like a growling match. And my holdall, they’d shifted it. I stomped over to them, ready for action. The two old grizzlies stopped talking and watched my approach.

“I asked you to keep your eye on my bag, not touch it, didn’t I?” I said, addressing the old bum. The yanks are right. That’s what they are. Bums.

“Take it easy, pal,” the purple one said. He held up splayed fingers and moved his hands the way a conductor indicates a diminuendo.

“Hey, mister!” I said into the gnarled face of the first bum. “I’m talking to you.” Emptied of supposed recognition, his red eyes slid past me and locked onto a flock of pigeons on the ground a couple of benches away squabbling over breadcrumbs.

I ripped open the zip and started rooting inside, making a real show of it. “If anything is missing from here, I’m going to kill you,” I heard myself bellowing. But immediately I was sorry for my outburst. I reminded myself of her and her hysterics. And when I found everything that should be there – the tin box with the few dollars and coins I’d gotten from people on the street, my watch with the broken strap, and an address book – I wanted to apologise to the old guy, but something wouldn’t let me. Instead I shook my head disapprovingly while closing the bag, as though I was still miffed about it being interfered with, and limped away. I didn’t have a limp, but sometimes my body does things without consulting my head.

Not until I was a good forty minutes away from the park and back in the city did I discover that I’d been on the money in my suspicions about the old guy. My water. That filthy hobo had swiped my bottle of water. Almost full it was, too. It never would have occurred to me before just how big a deal it is to have a bottle of water with you when you’re running solo on the streets. I’d taken it for granted, a lot like the way I’d gotten used to having a girlfriend around me.

Apart from needing to wash away the miniature Sahara in my throat, the bottle was a kind of crutch, something to hold onto when I approached strangers and pitched my story. Made me look legitimate, I thought, a beat-up traveller doing his thing. Now I had to break into the few dollars given me on the street. That way I’d never get the fare to Boston to her parents’ house. Once I made it to her parents’ place, even if she wasn’t there, they’d fix me up with a replacement instrument. They’re good people. You could tell that right off. They’d understand. Soon as I had a violin again, I could start busking and make some real money, get myself cleaned up, and maybe even book into a hotel.

After the cop told me to push on, I went to a shopping mall. Two security staff tailed me and openly walkie-talkied each other about my movements. I bought a giant packet of potato-chips and six small bottles of water, before slipping back into the city’s endless avenues and towering skyscrapers. Concentrating on my own tatty white runners, I avoided the faces passing in the streets, and only looked up when, by default, I found the little shop I’d been hunting for. The streets of New York are a maze.

In the large shop window the saxophones and trumpets caught splinters of neon and sparkled. A trio of shiny guitars flaunted themselves like beauties from a Rubens’ canvas. My interest lay farther in at the back of the shop where I could just about make out other stringed instruments. I’d been inside the shop a number of times that week already, but now I hesitated.

The rising smell coming off my body, an oniony-garlicy stink, wouldn’t make me feel any better about myself in the shop’s enclosed space. I belched. A cloying fishy after-taste from the scampi-flavoured crisps was in my mouth. I gulped down a mouthful of water. My vision focused on my reflection in the shop window. Weather-beaten, my skin had turned red, almost purple. The five o’clock shadow was now a full-blown tawny beard, and my hair was already growing. Bits of it stuck up like I’d shoved my finger into a cartoon socket. I moved on into the day.

“That bitch. That stupid bitch,” I snarled at the dizzying pavement.

A group of teenage girls I had to walk around giggled loudly after me. I sensed the eyes of other passers-by slashing at me. I increased my walking-pace. What the hell were they looking at? Dumb-asses. How many of them had been to college? Did they ever play in an orchestra at a national concert hall?

I watched an old woman approaching at a distance. She was shuffling along on a cane and mumbling to a tiny dog she had on a lead. As she came closer I could see what she was doing. Pretending not to notice me, trying to keep her wrinkled old eyes averted, it was so obvious. Who did she think she was with her black headscarf and uppity attitude? Even the dog ignored me.

I stopped and barked, “Hey missus!”

The old woman made a squeak of supposed fright and looked about her as though I were invisible.

“Here I am, missus,” I said, and I flapped my arms like a chicken.

She squinted at me through lenses as thick as a telephone directory, looked me up and down, and then turned into the traffic on the busy road. Cars beeped and drivers roared at her. I joined them.

“It won’t be long now,” I bellowed into cupped hands. “Pretty soon the daffodils will be poking their noses out of the ground.” The sound of my own voice alarmed me greatly. It could’ve been someone else’s voice. There was a rawness in it, a deep gravelish sound like a growl. But I wouldn’t let the old woman get away with her impertinence. I pointed after her retreating old carcase, rocked back and forth on the balls of my feet, and whinnied with laughter.

Did you like the story? Opinions? Praise? Please leave a comment below

Stephen Wade


Steve Wade is a prize nominee for the PEN/O’Henry Award, 2011, and a prize nominee for the Pushcart Prize, 2013, his fiction has been published widely in print and online. His work has won awards and been placed in prestigious writing competitions, including being shortlisted for the Francis McManus Award, 2013 (the story was recorded by a professional actor and broadcast on RTE); His novel ‘On Hikers’ Hill’ was awarded First Prize in the UK abook2read Literary Competition, December 2010 – among the final judging panel was the British lyricist sir Tim Rice. His fiction has been published in over thirty print publications.

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