I've recently been inspired by Chord to look back through the mist of time to the NYC I knew, back in the eighties when I was hopscotching over the Williamsburgh bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Actually, at one point I used to jog over the bridge every morning to get to work in the East Village. That was when I worked for Moving Man, which was based on Essex Ave.
Let me explain about being a Mover. It is not, as you might think, allied with being a 'shaker' as in the O'Shaughnessy poem 'Ode', and has even less to do with the religious movement of the latter name. No, a Mover is the man (or woman, even then there were a few) who comes to pack up and move your furniture from one residence to another.
Sound pretty humdrum? Not in the Big Apple it ain't, boys and girls. Not in the eighties, in any case, for all I know they now have degrees in Furniture Relocation Engineering and wear white coveralls and gloves.
For one thing, in those days a lot of artists and musicians worked the trucks- the actors and dancers generally waited tables, for reasons that are obscure. All of us waiting for the big break. It was common to ask someone puffing up the stairs with your piano, 'So, what else do you do?' In fact that was one of the commonest questions to ask anyone doing what would be considered a humdrum job in NYC, unless they were a stockbroker or a property developer. Everyone came to the city to 'make it' and sooner or later everyone did. In a way.
Let me explain. Picture to yourself a vast prarie dog village..got it? Now imagine that as a figure of speech illustrating NYC in the eighties: an endless landscape of little heaps with someone at the top of every one of them. You could be the most individual Taxi driver, the most memorable waiter, even the most flamboyant bag lady.
When you called 'Moving Man' you never knew who would turn up. We had teachers, Russian emigre's looking like Rasputin, artists like Yours Truly, Jazz muscians, Hispanics with their company tee shirts cut off at the breatbone to show off their ab's- anything but IRA gunmen hiding out; they were all hired by an Irish owned Moving company with ties to the Old Country. I'm not making any of this up.
So to set the scene- on this one particular day in July we were coming back from a job somewhere Uptown (I should explain to you outoftowners that Manhattan is a narrow island that roughly speaking runs from north to south- north is uptown, south is downtown.) Anyway we had four of us in the cab, John the driver, myself, and two Hispanic guys, let's call them Israel and Julio. John was a Philosophy teacher at NYU, I think, or someplace like that. Israel was a quiet little guy, I never knew his background but one day he swore me to secrecy and showed me how to hotwire a truck. Julio, though... Julio was an experience. You ladies out there- you know those annoying and sometimes alarming guys who shout suggestions and downright obscenities at you as you pass? That was Julio. His favorite form of repartee was to lean out the window and shout - it sounded like 'Yo punyata' , which I was told means something like 'I'm abusing myself' - accompanied by graphic semaphore. Contrary to what you might think, most of the other guys found this distasteful and not funny.
Now four in a cab on a hot day in July with all of us sweaty from the move was not pleasant, but we were all trying to put up with it, except for Julio. He had his window open and was leaning half out shouting his usual invitations and observations to passing women, intersperced with complaints about the heat and the way we all smelled. I could see John getting annoyed and finally he stopped the truck at an intersection and told Julio that if he didn't like it why didn't he ride outside? The trucks in those days had wide running boards and extended side view mirrors, so it was possible at slow speeds to ride outside the cab holding onto the mirror bracket. Technically illegal, of course , but this was NYC and no self respecting cop was going lower himself to issuing a traffic citation.
So here's Julio, hanging on with one hand and waving and calling to passing women, and John took a right turn down tenth heading for the West Village. This was not our regular route back to the lot and I looked over at him in surprise. He had a strange smile on his face and all he said was, 'Roll up your window.'
The West Village in those days was solidly Gay- guys holding hands and necking on street corners, women arm in arm, and this was, as I said, a hot summer day in mid July and everyone was on the street checking out the action, even if they were the action. When Julio saw where we were headed a look of terror came over his face and he banged on the window shouting for John to stop and me to let him back in.Both of us pretended not to hear, and little Israel just sat in the middle grinning to himself.
Now picture one of those movies where the hero is trussed up and suspended over a tank filled with Piranhas, and they start turning the crank . That might give you a vague idea of the scene when half the population of the West Village spotted Julio in his cut off tee shirt clinging desperately to the side of a truck which was motoring very, very slowly down Christopher Street.
Luckily Julio had a death grip on the mirror bracket and was a pretty husky guy, but the laughter and suggestions coming thick and fast from outside more than made up for the fact that I couldn't see what was going on below the window because of Julio's terrified face plastered against it trying, it seemed, to crawl through the glass. When we passed a group in bikers' leathers who were looking our way and unbuckling their belts I signalled to John who sighed regretfully and accelerated to the next intersection and let the poor guy back in.
I'd like to say that Julio was a changed man from that day on, but the truth is that I don't know. He left without a word when we pulled into the lot and I never saw him again.