Back in my room, I go to work by nine or ten, if I’m lucky. I am immersed in characters in Sixth-Century Britain. I chose this era because no one knows much about what went on then, and as long as I avoid gross anachronisms, what I say goes. Who is going to call me on the presence of Africans in a Roman ruin outside London or the strumming of musical instruments indigenous to the Middle East and undocumented until two centuries later? I rub my hands with nerdish glee at what I am getting away with while three floors below, Greyhound runaways are panhandling for “spange” or spare change.
The blocks between Fourth and Second are a gauntlet of panhandlers, and to some you must pay tribute. One I call “The Troll.” He is a black guy about my age, but he could be much younger, with an Afro stuffed into a Navy watch cap; a cowl of shadow. Every day he sits in front of the travel agency and worries passersby with his demonic stare. To avoid the curse of the evil eye I make a ritual of giving him my coffee change. It has to be the same amount every day. Fifty-four cents. If I give him more, he comes to expect it, and if shortchanged he will curse me with his not-quite-burnt-out charcoal eyes. The curse is silent, but it is there: I will get no work done that day or only mediocre work. I will get a backache or be distracted all morning with thoughts of John Goodman’s thighs or the cursor will stick on my screen. No no. It is well worth the money.
For four of my seven days at the Pickwick, work has its own satisfactory pace. I will be among the Saxons or the Welsh barbarians until, say, noon. By that time, I sense subliminally a fine grit of diesel exhaust around my eyes and the desiccated body ash of transients-past clinging to my skin, though I sleep on the bedspread almost fully clothed. I have enough in my budget to walk down two blocks to the ymca where, if I show them my Pickwick Hotel key, I can use the gym for the day for only $6.
I could, theoretically, swim all day in the indoor pool, lounging in the bleachers or broasting in the sauna during the seniors’ or children’s swim classes, but I choose to use the weight rooms and benches, where I tone my body mercilessly, sometimes for minutes. In a kind of fervor of the flesh, I will punish myself, feel the cleansing burn, often using weights with double digits until I collapse, cough-wracked, knowing that I am freeing up nicotine and burnt tobacco from the lining of my lungs. A satisfactory pain will wash over me after as many as nine repetitions of the three exercise routines. I take a long steam, then shower. I am purged.
Knowing that early afternoon is rarely a productive time for me, I will grab a 99-cent Burger King or Wendy’s special and visit with my friend Pontiac at the shoe-shine stand between the entrances to the Pickwick and the Piccadilly Club bar.
When I first arrived at the Pickwick, Pontiac asked why I was staying there. I said I didn’t know and he said, “Yes, you do.”
Pontiac was born and named in 1951 when his parents didn’t quite make it to the hospital near their Oceanside home and the lad came into the world in the family car. Possibly because of this fact, he exhibits both a keen awareness and an amused roadside detachment to life’s vagaries and brief, flashing spectacle.
The handsome Mexican/Native American former musician wears a satanic goatee and an angelic smile. His eyes constantly squint with some inner delight behind thick-framed glasses. Today he is shining the tasseled loafers of a thirtyish man in a medium-priced suit. The man wears his blond hair long in a ponytail and over his eyes wraparound shades. He reads the newspaper while Pontiac is discussing the Atlanta Braves and the Mets with the homeless and odoriferous Bam Bam. He interrupts their conversation to greet me.
“Did you read that book?” Pontiac asks me.
“No,” I tell him. “I haven’t gotten around to it yet.” He is talking about The Celestine Prophecy, a book he recommended and I resist reading for no other reason, I suppose, than its wild popularity a few years back. Always a suspect quality in literature, mass appeal.
“You will,” he tells me with patience and surety.
I promise him I’ll pick up a copy at Wahrenbrock’s today. “Whatever,” he says, shrugging.
I say hello to Bam Bam (short for Alabama, where he is from) and give him some money. He once told me that if he doesn’t get a drink around this time of day he starts shaking and throwing up — I don’t want that shit on my conscience if I can do anything about it. Bam Bam will tell you in the first several minutes of conversation that he has had seven duis in four different states. He has spent a total of 14 days in jail in his whole life and he began his drinking career 11 years ago when his wife died. “And then,” he told me, “14 other friends and family members died on me the year after that. One of them died right here on my shoulder.”
Bam Bam walks with a cane because of a badly swollen ankle and poor circulation. “It’s swollen up thanks to a cop,” Bam Bam insists. “I fell asleep on one of those concretes. Cop come along, tried to wake me up, but I was sleepin’ hard. He walked up and kicked me in that foot.”
He reaches into his windbreaker pocket as if he has suddenly remembered something. “Look what I got,” he says, and produces a half-smoked cigar with a white plastic filter tip. “I’ve got another one for later too, if I want it.”