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...Chapter One continued

Beaming positives, he sprinted for the next two blocks until he saw the crosswalks ahead full of people. Crossing against the light, they were comrades in anarchy——like him they ignored the signals, watched the traffic instead. He slowed up slightly and yelled, “Coming through!” He weaved gracefully through their stuttered steps. Behind him he could hear the rumble of traffic catching up. They overtook him just as he leaned into his turn at 55th Street.

Soon he was snaking through bumper to bumper vehicles in midtown, but it was only for a few blocks. In less than a minute he was curving around Columbus Circle and onto an entrance road to Central Park. Cars were banned here this time of day, and when he rolled onto peaceful West Drive, the hush of natural greens and browns replaced the roar of traffic. Now the hazards were rollerbladers and strollers, but if there were a collision, at least he was up a notch in victim hierarchy.

He coasted again, absorbing the new visuals of trees, lawns, and outcroppings of rock. With a long deep breath, he finally allowed his diligence to recede. He could almost feel the tension shedding off his skin along with exhaust soot from cars. Riding through the park always brought back wistful memories of his former cycling life in California——serene rides in the tawny hills of beautiful Marin County, and San Francisco with its sensual vistas of blue skies and ocean. In Manhattan he had been forced to forge new rhythms from the gritty poetry of potholes and gaping storm grates, adapt to the edgy etiquette of horn-happy cabbies, and share the road with mirrorless panel vans and gargantuan tractor-trailers. It wasn’t as artful, but it had certainly made him more alert.

On his right now, a horse carriage was merging with him onto East Drive where it curved north. He dropped down two gears, stood in his pedals and passed the carriage quickly, then powered up the winding hill, avoiding numerous joggers. In front of the boathouse he passed several riders on mountain bikes, feeling a tinge self-conscious. Alloy racers like his were the speed kings in the park, but he had always been a reluctant competitor. Around other riders he was a secret warrior, careful to hide any hint of challenge. It highlighted one of the major backfires of his life——by avoiding competition in anything, he unconsciously competed in everything. But today he laughed off his mind game——other factors were rationing his competitive forays, like his thighs which were killing him. And the dope was wearing off.

With a few dozen muscle-burning strokes, he reached the plateau behind the Met Museum. He slowed his pace some, sat up and extended his head forward and down. A stiff neck was a price he willingly paid to ride buzzed-out on weed.

Suddenly, a group of roadies burst by him——a club going super fast. In matching red-and-yellow team jerseys, they rode in real tight together, their motions uniform, all in the same high gear. He watched them for a bit, wondering at his ambivalence towards them. Speed was about all he had in common with roadies. He had never been a clubber. He usually rode solo, digging the anonymous feel of whizzing by in helmet and shades, too fast to be noticed or participate. Clubs weren’t very dope-tolerant either. They took themselves too seriously——staying real to keep a competitive edge. Another dumb reality for people who can’t handle drugs. He smiled, and impulsively reached back to a small leather bag strapped to his carrier. Look at me, he laughed, advertising my stash to thieves. But jeez, what could they do——swoop down from a passing bike?

Chuckling at his silliness, Steven cruised lazily all the way up East Drive, past the reservoir and ball fields on his left and Museum Mile to his right, insulated by meadows and trees. This was the part of his job he always liked. It was too bad the park leg was so short.

 

Ten minutes later, he was sweating in the foyer of a huge apartment building on West 104th. He played a riff on the buzzer of his friend, Victoria——artist, dogwalker and customer. He was already thinking ahead; just asking Victoria how she was doing could be dangerous, you might hear how to build a clock when all you wanted was the time.

“Friend or foe?” a female voice crackled.

“Un amigo,” Steven jibed, using up most of the Spanish he knew.

In the elevator, he tried to cool down by pinching his jersey over and over to blow air on his torso. He was determined to make it a fast stop, others were waiting. But so was Victoria when the door opened, a pack of exuberant dogs trailing behind her.

“Hi,Vic.”

“Hey, love.” She planted a kiss on his cheek as he rolled his bike out. Equally friendly, the canines jumped on him as if he were a delivery of fresh meat, collars jangling like a dance troupe of gypsies.

“Whoa!” He deflected a pair of poodles with his bike.

“Enough already!” Victoria clapped her hands twice, which sent most of them funneling back through her open door.

“Lordy, mama.” Steven grinned, shook his head. “I don’t know how you handle so many.”

“I can tell you how.” She fixed her eyes goofily on his leather bag.

“Let’s go in.” He began rolling to her door. “Can’t stay though, I got a few more stops.”

“You always say that.”

“Well, it’s truer today than usual.”

Inside her apartment, Victoria cloistered her pooches in her bedroom, then went into the kitchen. Steven parked his bike in her living room under a bank of fauve oil paintings which she had hung close together, like substitutes for wallpaper. Nudes were her only subjects, bold her only nuance, and as far as he knew, these walls her sole gallery. He pulled his helmet and gloves off, trying to avoid the pull of orange crotches, massive blue mammaries and large red dicks which basted the walls like a brothel of acid-happy contortionists. OK, down to business, he said to himself, unzipping his bag.

Victoria always wanted to see everything that was happening. It was a pain, but she was also one of his oldest customers, going so far back he couldn’t even remember how they’d met. He began lining up small hand-labeled bags on her dining table——weighed-out eighths of ounces.

She returned with a glass of water. “Here you go, love.”

“Ahh.” He slugged down the water while she checked out his wares.

She held up a bag with an X sticker on it, squeezing its puffy green buds through the clear plastic.

“That’s the exotic,” Steven said. “It’s clearheaded, peppy, real easy on the eyes. Pricey as hell though.” He pointed to a bag of duller green, labeled T. “I just got the Tex-Mex. It’s upper end, almost as good, but less heady.”

“You sound like a bloody waiter,” she cackled. “What did I get last time?”

“You took that dirt weed.” He grinned, pointing to a brown bag labeled Z. “I know it’s cheap, but it tastes like potting soil. The Z’s for zonker, if you didn’t know. Why don’t you just spare your lungs and glue some quarters on your eyelids?”

She smiled, opened the bag and held it to her nose. “It’s not so bad.”

Steven frowned. “You can paint on that stuff?”

She grabbed his arm. “I could skydive on it if they’d let me.” Laughing, she reached for a small tray and  pushed aside its tiny brush pile of  sticks and seeds.

Steven shook his head. “It’s your money, hun.” His eyes strayed to the color-splashed walls. “Anyway, I guess it’s obvious you paint on it.”

Busy rolling a joint, Victoria smiled without looking up. “When are you going to sit for me, Steven? You know we’d have fun.”

“Ohh no, I don’t think so.” He reached for his gloves. “I can’t compete with some of those, uh, proportions.”

Grinning, she glanced at his skintight bike shorts. “Why sure you can, love.”

“Now stop that.” Steven laughed, grabbed his helmet. “Gimme forty bucks and I’m outahere.”

Victoria sent him off with another kiss at the elevator. Going down, Steven watched the floors light up, and visualized her ongoing modeling offer. Her loaded and him butt-naked, he knew where that would end up. A helluva job perk, he grinned, but even his job had rules. No shitting where you eat.

Steven’s next stop was the sprawling steps in the middle of the Columbia University campus. There he met Herbert Bromberg, another veteran customer. Herbert worked a few blocks away teaching English to Russians for some church outfit. Herb insisted on the school rendezvous to satisfy his jones for ogling brainy coeds. He also got a kick at hearing Steven’s public-coded sales spiel where he used “book” critiques as surrogates for drug potency. There was less room for accuracy, but it made little difference——like Victoria, Herbert always went for the cheapest “read” available.

As usual it went without a hitch, sharing fast small talk about passing blondes, brunettes, and Herb’s kids back in Paramus. Steven rolled away with sixty more bucks in his bag. He headed for his last stops——the easy ones, dropping off officious looking packages in home-wrapped FedEx cardboard. Accepting them were doormen at exclusive buildings on West End and Claremont Avenues. On instruction, the doormen gave him sealed envelopes stuffed with big bills from Steven’s ounce customers——high-flying professionals, well-heeled and highfalutin enough to stamp out a doorman’s curiosity with hefty holiday tips. These were Steven’s bread and butter clients, but also the guys who had ruined the dope business, lawyer-broker types wanting only the best. Their pay-any-price demeanor had pushed the price of exotics through the roof, just like Manhattan real estate.

No, he wouldn’t think about that now. Why ruin his best week in months? He rolled his bike out of the building, and looked out at the woods of Riverside Park across the street. Pieces of the Hudson showed through the foliage, and New Jersey strained over the top of the tree line. God, look at this. He was lucky not to be trapped in some office, a computer screen dictating his next move. He mounted and scooted across 115th and onto Riverside Drive. It was still early in the day, and the only thing required of him was to navigate a great winding downhill all the way to 96th.

In a few seconds he was flying past a fenced-off kiddie playground on his right. With minute twists of his wrists he aimed his bike past holes in the road that he knew well by now. The same scenario could have been anytime in the last ten years——different streets, other customers. He loved to ride and his risky gig was a perfect vehicle for his 12-speed life. He smiled. Living off the grid in the grid capital of the world. Today, it was OK.

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