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DURING THE KIRSCHENBAUM SEDER OF ’84, hopped up on hormones and Manischewitz, I kissed then-thirteen-year-old Tana Kirschenbaum while we were supposed to be hunting the afikomen. I even made a run at fondling her breasts—marvelous then, nothing but improvement since—until, to my great dismay, she shut me down. It wasn’t that Tana didn’t like me: She just already knew better than to trust me. And while I lost a potential conquest, I found a sister. In the years since, Tana had been chief strategist to my romantic entanglements. She helped me make sense of my feelings when love was in bloom and, when it wasn’t, listened patiently to my sins. In return, I offered sage advice regarding her own affairs of the heart, which tended to be long on deep, meaningful embraces but short on the down-and-dirty. “He’s definitely gay” was my most frequent observation.

With the exception of last Thanks giving—it’s hard to believe that a year has passed since my Long Weekend of Glorious Ingratitude—the Kirschenbaums have provided the setting for most major holidays. My own parents are short on family ties: Mom’s clan of no-nonsense Protestants reside mainly in her native Indiana, while Dad’s relations—to call them lapsed Catholics doesn’t quite capture the length of the fall—always seem to be engaged in some blood feud precluding any possibility of face-to-face contact. Larry Kirschenbaum, who’s thrice defended my father on charges of driving under the influence, is the closest thing Dad has to a friend. Still, my father harbors an abiding suspicion, repeated each time we pile into the car to go, that the invitation allows Larry to write off the cost of the meal.

This year’s table seats thirteen, which for the Kirschenbaums is an intimate affair. No one is sober enough to retrieve dessert. I’m fairly certain that Dottie, Tana’s heavily mascaraed but otherwise remarkably preserved mother, is flirting with me. There really isn’t any other way to make sense of her so far unquenchable interest in my current job, slinging soft-serve at the Carvel on Jerusalem Avenue.

Dottie’s stocking foot, now tracing a line up my leg, confirms my theory. Awkward, as I’m sitting next to her husband. Doubly awkward, as I’m pretty sure Dottie and my father have engaged in carnal gymnastics on more than one occasion. Sure enough, Dad—who’s spent most of the night fixated on Tana’s glorious rack—is glaring at me with a look that might be intimidating if not drowned in scotch. I’m relieved to see that Mom’s too dead-eyed to notice, thanks to Dr. Marty Edelman, an orthodontist whose recent vacation to Napa Valley apparently produced no detail too small or insignificant.

While I can imagine worse fates than sinking my Fudgie the Whale into Dottie’s Cookie-Puss, the idea of going where my father’s been strikes me as a little too Oedipal for comfort. I excuse myself and step outside for a cigarette.

Uncle Marvin has beaten me to the stoop. He isn’t my uncle—avuncularly speaking, he belongs to Tana—but he’s as much a fixture at these things as the cloth place mats. A year or two north of sixty, he still sports a full mane of shiny gray hair, less a sign of virility than a cruel reminder. He was one of New York’s Finest during the seventies, until six bullets to the legs and groin led to an early retirement, a permanent limp, and a urinary tract fucked up enough to require a permanent piss bag. Tana claims he’s supplementing his disability pay with part-time work evicting foreclosures—a booming business thanks to the recent savings and loan scandal—but none of that money seems to have found its way to his wardrobe: polyester pants, long-collared shirt, and a black leather jacket that, like Uncle Marvin himself, has seen better days.

“Uncle Marvin,” I say.

Uncle Marvin grunts at me like I’m an idiot. I’m not offended—we’ve had entire conversations that didn’t consist of much more. He watches me bang my pack against the back of my hand for a few seconds before reaching into his jacket for a hand-rolled cigarette and a book of matches. Then he slips a match between two fingers and lights it directly into his cupped hands, which form a natural shelter from the icy wind. A pretty cool trick, I have to admit. As he puffs his smoke to life, I counter by flicking a Zippo twice across my pants leg—not the only thing I learned during my brief college experience, but definitely the most useful. I light the unfiltered Camel and take a deep drag, suddenly noticing an odor even more exotic than my favored blend of Turkish and American tobaccos.

“That doesn’t smell much like a cigarette,” I say.

“You fucking kids wouldn’t know good grass if it smacked you in the eye.”

“I’ve smoked marijuana before,” I reply, recognizing that I’m in serious danger of being outcooled by a ball-less old man dressed like Serpico.

“Well, my niece sure as shit ain’t.”

“I thought we were supposed to ‘Just say no’?”

“Not advice,” he says, exhaling through clenched teeth, “that would ever come from me.”

He offers me a toke, which I decline. “I’m kind of going through a scotch and cigarettes phase right now,” I tell him.

“Get it in while you can. It’ll all be gone soon enough.”

Conversations with Uncle Marvin tend to be short, given his natural aversion toward anything polite, but I’m not in a hurry to get back inside and more than willing to pick up the slack. “I hear you. I’m thinking about moving to the city.”

“The city?” His eyes narrow. “Everybody I know is leaving. City’s a goddamn cesspool.”

“Well, that should make it much easier for me to find an apartment.”

“Funny,” he says without smiling.

A minute or two pass in silence, which I take to mean our conversation has ended. “Thanks as always for the witty repartee,” I say, tossing the butt to the ground and stamping it out with my toe. “I’d better get back inside before my father makes the moves on your niece.”

“Wait a minute…. When you go into the city, you can pick me up some more.” He raises the joint by way of explanation.

“You know I’d love to help you, Uncle Marvin, but I wouldn’t even know where to—”

“You go see my guy. Here…” He produces a bankroll the size of a baby’s fist from his front pocket, peels off six twenties, and presses them into my hand. “That’ll buy a quarter.”

“A quarter?”

“A quarter ounce. And don’t let him dick you with the stems and seeds. Dead weight, that shit.”

To be completely honest, I am grateful to have something to do that doesn’t involve ice cream.

The next morning, I rise early and dress in the dark, slipping out of the house before my parents can wake up and ask questions. A fifteen-minute walk later I’m aboard the Long Island Rail Road, just another head in the morning cattle drive to New York City. I find a seat next to an asshole in a suit reading the Journal. The car bounces gently as the train rumbles past row after row of working-class houses. I’m trying to decide if “working class” is an oxymoron when a frosted blonde in a work skirt sashays past me. While my time with Daphne taught me, among other things, that I wasn’t the biggest fetishist when it came to sex, there’s something about the combination of stockings and running shoes that does it for me. I spend the next thirty minutes wondering if there’s a railway equivalent of the Mile High Club. On reaching the station, the cattle rise to their feet, driven toward the exits by instinct and caffeine. I drift along for the ride, floating on a wave of group dynamics toward Seventh Avenue.

Uncle Marvin’s connection is in Alphabet City, making convenient travel all but impossible. The easiest thing would be to hail a cab, but I’m still hopeful that my day as a drug mule might result in a profit. So after some consultation with a subway map, I hoof it a block east, shell out two bucks for a couple of subway tokens, and take the F to Second Avenue. A grizzled wino in a ski cap stumbles through the car, rattling a Styrofoam cup, offering God’s blessings every time a straphanger adds a few coins. I feel an urge to shake the guy—what kind of God does he think is watching out for him? I get my answer a minute later, when a second beggar enters the car from the other direction. The flow of donations comes to an abrupt halt. It’s as if the sight of so much hopelessness smothers any impulse toward charity. If there is a God paying attention to this pair of lost souls, He’s got a wicked sense of humor.

Emerging on Houston Street, I try to match the brisk and focused New York Strut. I don’t want to look like a tourist. I turn left (north, I remind myself) on Avenue A and pass through Tompkins Square. Newly erected plastic fences keep would-be homesteaders off the grassy parts—and, in the process, everybody else. The end result looks less like a park than a museum to mourn the passing of public space. “Believe it or not,” says the imaginary tour guide in my head, “children were once allowed to roam freely on these lawns.”

At the park’s far corner, a congregation of skinheads causes me to quicken my pace. One of them has a swastika tattooed to his forehead. Good luck getting a job, Fritzie. I don’t have to make eye contact to know that they’re staring at me, which gets my heart racing, but I’m apparently white enough to earn passage without molestation. While I don’t have any idea whether or not Uncle Marvin’s notion of a New York exodus is grounded in fact, I’m beginning to see the rationale. The prevailing atmosphere is despair, punctuated by moments of terror.

A block later, I’m in Puerto Rico, or so I’m led to believe by the complete lack of English signage. I stand in front of the address Uncle Marvin gave me, a five-story building anchored by a boarded-shut nightclub that doesn’t seem like it will be reopening anytime soon. I buzz Apartment 4D.

“Yah?” crackles the response.

“Marvin Kirschenbaum sent me. I’m looking for—”

The buzzer buzzes and I scramble to push through the door in time. Inside a dimly lit hallway lined by mailboxes, I scan the names until reaching 4D: “The Pontiff.” Apparently this is a holy pilgrimage. I look up, drawn by a sudden commotion in the stairwell. Raised voices. A slamming door. A bilingual explosion of English and Spanish curse words.

I begin a cautious ascent, encountering the source of the commotion, or at least a key participant, on the stairs between the second and third floors. He’s a kid about my age, Puerto Rican, wearing an oversized Tommy Hilfiger shirt and baggy, low-riding Girbaud jeans, plus scuffless Air Jordans that would set me back what I make in a week at Carvel. Noticing me, he spits on the ground. Then he rips a Motorola pager from the hem of his pants and smashes it against the wall.

“Nothing personal,” he says.

I nod and continue without further incident to the fourth floor, where Apartment 4D anchors the end of the hall. I knock on the door.

A peephole slides open, revealing an eye. “You a cop?” growls a voice from the other side.

“No sir,” I reply, figuring that even drug dealers appreciate good manners.

The eye blinks two or three times before the slot slams shut. From the other side, I can hear five locks unfasten in succession. Then the door swings open, revealing a second door.

“You packing?” asks the door, which I now recognize to be an extremely large black man in a dark blue warm-up suit.

“I’ve got cash, if that’s what you mean,” I reply. My palms are sweating.

“Good for you.” Suddenly his large hands are roaming up and down my body. It’s all very clinical and detached, but that doesn’t stop me from squirming.

“Keep it up and you’re going to have to buy me a drink,” I say.

The Man-Door silently ushers me into a room about the size of a high school cafeteria, an illusion enhanced by fluorescent lighting and foldout banquet tables with built-in benches. Only in this alternate universe, high school is populated entirely by middle-aged Puerto Rican women.

The room, while fragrant, doesn’t smell anything like a cafeteria. The redolent piles of marijuana that blanket the tabletops make me think of freshly mowed lawns. The women tear off hot dog–sized chunks and plop them on scales, adding and subtracting nuggets to achieve some ideal weight before bagging the results in half-sized Ziplocs I’ve never seen at any supermarket. A fat man with squinty eyes—this Bizarro school’s assistant principal—waddles among the tables, keeping an eye out for any funny business and occasionally replenishing the grass from a more familiar-sized Hefty bag. At least a dozen more such bags form a hill in the room’s far corner.

The only other furniture is an old desk in the opposite corner, occupied by a thin man with a wife beater T-shirt and an unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth. The desk’s only adornments are a clean-as-new ashtray and a push-button telephone that seems to ring every time the thin man finishes a call. While I’ll later learn that, for reasons that should have been obvious, the room is subject to a strict no-smoking policy, in the moment it’s hard not to think of Sisyphus, his never-ending task a perpetual roadblock to his nicotine fix. The thin man’s job doesn’t seem to involve much more than the repeating of addresses, which he inscribes without edits onto Postit notes and jams onto a subway map tacked to the wall.

“Wake up, boy. The Pontiff is waiting,” says the Man-Door. He doesn’t waste any additional time with words or gestures—his enormity simply eliminates every option other than a door in the back of the room.

I enter a small room whose only light comes from an hon-estto-goodness lava lamp, bathing everything in shades of red. A lair, I think, hearing the door close behind me. My eyes slowly adjust, revealing walls and ceilings lined with the kind of batik tapestries that were so popular at college among veterans of prep school and fans of the Grateful Dead. The room’s sole inhabitant turns out to be a Caucasian male in his fifties who would have looked out of place anywhere but at a Dead show. There’s a small soul patch on his chin and dread-locks, either bleached or naturally orange, extending halfway down his back. He’s dressed like a South American farmer, but everything else about him suggests royalty, from the plush velvet armchair he occupies like a throne to the way he tilts his head, almost imperceptibly, toward the throw pillows that line the room’s floor. I recognize the gesture as an order to sit down. Which I do.

The man in the throne—the Pontiff, I presume—peers at me as if I might not be real. “So,” he finally declares. “You’re the kid.”

I nod.

“And you’re ready for this.” His questions don’t have question marks. He’s not searching for answers; he’s confirming that which he already knows.

“I think so.” I reach into my pocket for the money. “Marvin didn’t tell me much.”

“Marvin.”

“Marvin Kirschenbaum.” I pick up one of the bills, which I’ve fumbled to the floor. “He said he wanted a quarter.”

“A quarter.”

“A quarter ounce?”

“This isn’t about the position.”

“Marvin didn’t tell me anything about a position,” I say, hoping my voice doesn’t betray what is basically escalating terror bordering on trouser-soiling hysteria. Every instinct in my body demands that I get the fuck out of Dodge. But my mouth, for some ungodly reason, keeps moving: “Could you tell me a little more about it?”

“So you are here about the position.” The Pontiff turns his gaze toward a small wooden box, although I’m pretty sure he’s still talking to me.

I take a deep breath. “I’m not sure I have enough information yet to answer that question.”

The Pontiff nods, my fate seemingly decided, and opens the box. It’s full of weed. He removes a pinch of his product and crumbles it between his fingers into the bowl of a three-foot-high bong I’d somehow missed. “It was my original understanding,” he says, striking a foot-long match against its cylindrical package, “that you were here to replace Carlos. Tell me why I should hire you.” He places the lit end of the match next to the bowl and inhales, causing the flame to leap to the powdery grass. The water at the bottom of the bong gurgles as the glass tube becomes opaque with smoke for maybe twenty seconds.

I take a deep breath. Pull it together, kid.

“I am twenty years old,” I begin, “an age at which they say we’re supposed to be figuring it all out. And I’m taking them at their word. Following my heart. Pursuing that which interests me. Satisfying my wanderlust. It’s a philosophy that so far has led me to the food service industry, which I’ll be the first to admit isn’t exactly where I’d like or hoped to be, even before certain incidents—one incident, really, a solitary expression of youthful overexuberance—did considerable and more likely than not irreparable harm to my prospects in the trade. Another interest I have pursued is the opposite sex—the females, the ladies—and not to brag but let’s just say I’ve had a little more success than I’ve had with the food service industry. Good in the sack, or so I’ve been told. Seriously—I can get references—although maybe not my last girlfriend, who for reasons that are still unclear to me stabbed me with a knife and saddled me with trust issues. Those issues, plus my current job making ice cream cakes shaped like marine life, have led to decidedly fewer encounters with the ladies and, I’m afraid to say, a premature cynicism unbefitting my age.”

Only I don’t say any of that. Instead, I serve up a couple of platitudes about being reliable and willing to work hard.

“You can keep your mouth shut,” says the Pontiff.

I nod yes. Twenty minutes later, I’m walking out of the building with a new job, one that promises relatively high pay and easy work, fuck you very much Tom Carvel. It isn’t until I board the train back to Long Island that I realize I’ve forgotten to buy Uncle Marvin his weed.

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