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I didn’t expect to see my first prostitute in a Manhattan bakery.
Uncle Charlie said that we’d see them on the streets closer to lunchtime. He also told me they liked to wear mini-skirts. This woman wore a white dress and had a cast on her wrist. She looked like Cybil Shepherd from The Heartbreak Kid and could’ve been a schoolteacher who’d taken a bad fall on the ice.
It was a chilly April morning in 1975. A lethargic fly had been buzzing around the glass donut case. Flies are slow this time of year, I said.
It was my first day working with my uncle on his 7-Up truck route. I was 13, on Easter break.
Uncle Charlie had pounded the 7-Up truck’s long steel stick shift rod and clutch pedal for 25 years, through the hated cold and snow, and couldn’t wait until he retired and moved to Florida. He grew up in East Harlem when it was an Italian neighborhood, with an education that didn’t get beyond ninth grade.
When we left the bakery, Uncle Charlie told me I had just seen my first prostitute.
I felt grown up in a 7-Up company jacket covered with patches of the various brands they carried, like RC Cola and Nehi, and had wanted to believe that an older woman found me attractive and funny.
But I didn’t feel so special now, and there was an odd sadness to discovering a prostitute in a quotidian moment, morning coffee and donuts with the rest of us.
The 7-Up plant in the Bronx was a massive colorless structure. The warehouse contained dozens of trucks and endless wooden skids of soda. The soda was also made there, which surprised me. I thought it originated somewhere magical, and when I wandered into the area where it was manufactured I thought of Willy Wonka’s secret factory.
The bathroom was an education, a perverse form of hieroglyphics. In the boys’ bathroom at my junior high on Long Island, the worst I’d seen was so-and-so sucks.
The drivers were what my social studies teacher called a melting pot of New York: black, white, Puerto Rican, Chinese. They prepared paperwork for their routes, drank coffee, smoked, read the Daily News, and cursed the weather, the city, and whatever sports team lost the night before.
It was the first time I’d heard adults curse. I drank coffee with the men and memorized their dirty jokes. It topped homeroom.
They asked if I had a girlfriend. Not at the moment, I said. They told me to go out with lots of girls and not to settle down for a long time. I just craved one girlfriend, a first kiss, I thought to myself.
My first crush was on a girl who lived on a suburban street named for a tree that never lost its color. It would’ve been a nice metaphor for a future together.
One day, during kickball, we threw furry caterpillars at each other on the field. Everyone screamed at us to get the ball. It was my initiation into love.
She wore red hot pants that showed tanned legs. Her brown hair was cut with bangs, and her brown eyes had a sleepy look that opened wide when she saw me.
A few days later, she began to pay attention to another boy. He had longish hair and a new bike with a banana seat. I said something mean about her in the cafeteria. She came up to me in the school yard and punched me in the cheek, a solid knuckle on bone shot which filled my eyes with tears, and in shame I pulled on her shirt until it came down over a small nipple, my first view of the female anatomy, and then her friends were kicking me.
Recess ended and everyone walked away. I stood near the chain link fence of the backstop until the school aid waved for me to come inside.
Another driver asked me if I was going to take over Uncle Charlie’s route one day. The kid’s going to college, Uncle Charlie said.
I said that I thought of being a stunt man in the movies because I liked jumping out of trees, or a movie star.
In the morning we delivered to a couple of Gristedes supermarkets and tiny candy stores. When we stopped for lunch Uncle Charlie passed me a brown paper bag that contained copies of Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, Oui, courtesy of the vendors who wanted to satisfy an adolescent kid’s prurience.
I was full of Christmas morning giddiness. I’d never seen pictures of naked women. Playboy was on the top rack of our stationary store’s magazine display, and I’d linger near the comic book rack with the hope of sneaking another peak at the barely visible woman on the cover.
I stared at the photos and then looked out the open window of the truck to where the prostitutes were gathered. A bar and restaurant on the west side called Mifgosh appeared to be their meeting place, maybe to catch up on gossip or compare tips. The women on the sidewalk were not as attractive as the women in the magazines, but they were real. Some of them had shapely legs, which I liked best. Most of them had on high-heels but some wore boots that came all the way up their calves. The red lipstick was too garish on some.
The prostitute from the bakery, with the cast, didn’t appear to fit in with the type of women who smoked cigarettes on the sidewalk in mini-skirts. She might’ve been what Uncle Charlie referred to as a call girl, someone who worked for more money in a private capacity. This knowledge about the city made me feel streetwise, and when school resumed I’d return with a stash of magazines and an account of what real life was like 50 miles from the maple tree-lined streets of suburbia.
One of our stops on the truck was the Roseland Dance Hall on W. 52nd Street, Uncle Charlie’s favorite spot to dance to Big Band music during his bachelor days. That’s when people really knew how to dance, he said.
I’d seen him dance at weddings, very graceful, the same dark blue rumpled suit for every affair. The Cha Cha, Foxtrot, Lindy, he could do it all.
Uncle Charlie had remained a bachelor until he was 53, when he married my aunt, who worked as a secretary in Rockefeller Center. They lived in a condo in Jackson Heights, Queens, which Uncle Charlie had bought when he was single.
After work he’d turn on a Charlie Chaplin bar light and make a gin and vermouth martini, happy hour he called it, a tradition he’d begun when he was single. Then he’d put a record on and read the paper while my aunt cooked.
I’d read a Spider-Man comic on the couch and think about a girl I liked who sat in the row next to me. In the bathroom, I’d stand with my shirt off and flex my skinny biceps. They seemed to look bigger from lifting cases of soda. I noticed a few more hairs under my arms that didn’t appear to be there at the beginning of the week.
In the Roseland’s kitchen, the manager made me an ice cream sundae, which I ate alongside a dark dance floor.
I asked Uncle Charlie how old he was when he had his first girlfriend. He didn’t remember, but his advice was to always leave a woman smiling. You never know when you might need each other again, he said.
My first kiss wouldn’t happen until I was 17, which felt like a lifetime.
It didn’t occur in the way I had idealized it. I still had not been on a date, had not met a girl’s parents, had not opened a car door and escorted a girl to her stoop.
Someone from school, who had turned 18 and was celebrating in a bar, asked me for a birthday kiss. She was a sarcastic class clown type who hung around with the popular crowd, and had never acknowledged me.
I kissed her on the cheek but she grabbed me and put her tongue in my mouth, where it remained for the next half hour. Then her hand found my erection and rubbed it through my tight jeans under the bar.
She left with her friends to visit another bar and said we could continue this on Monday, after school, but when I stopped by her locker that day she walked away.
I felt used. But I was out to use her too. I’d been lonely, desperate for so long, manipulated by images and fantasies, unaware of how blurred the line was between what was real, and illusion.
Uncle Charlie and I had steak sandwiches for lunch everyday at a restaurant called the Shandon Star. One afternoon I needed a break from the cloud of cigarette smoke in the restaurant and went outside, where it had begun to rain.
I saw a young woman who looked to be a prostitute on a pay phone. I wondered if these women were runaways, and if they made a choice, New York or Hollywood, actress or prostitute, or both.
The girl hung up and waited out the rain in the booth. I had a crazy fantasy of getting an umbrella out of the truck and escorting her to someplace dry where she’d thank me and say her mother agreed to wire her bus fare back to the mid-west so she could finish her high school education, and then she’d admit to still being a virgin and tell me I was mature for my age and she’d give me her phone number and say how she’d wait for me to get older and even if I never used it I’d remember those numbers for the rest of my life.
Many years later, I saw my first crush in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, only a mile from that same kickball field, with two small children. I’d heard stories about drugs and divorce. She had the look of someone who smoked cigarettes incessantly and worked in a bland insurance office or travel agency.
I doubt she remembered that moment with the caterpillars. Girls like her never remembered the stuff that guys like me placed in that sacred memory closet.
I thought of her street sign, named for a tree that never lost its color, the first sign I remember being aware of that was not my street.
It was the first time I’d looked closely at her since that day on the kickball field, because after that day she faded away into the cliques and crowds of adolescence that I could never be a member of, and I’d avert my gaze whenever I passed her in the hall.
She had tired eyes, wrinkled skin, bleached hair, the appearance of someone who had a hard life.
I never followed Uncle Charlie’s advice and left them smiling. My relationships with women had been full of anger, jealousy, possessiveness, self-hatred, and abuse. All of it came from me.
I was about to move into the city, after remaining a commuter and visitor for so many years, but it was a different place. The theaters and peep shows on 42nd Street were boarded up and the prostitutes were ghosts.
It’s about time, Uncle Charlie said, when I called him in Florida and told him.
During my week on the truck, I became adept at weaving my hand truck through office workers and tourists, the spaces of hotels, restaurants, bars and bodegas, like an apparition, as if I’d become part of the city through osmosis.
Our final delivery was a famous steak house. Giant lobsters flopped around in a tank. My nephew from the suburbs, Uncle Charlie told the manager, and rubbed my hair.
Back on the sidewalk, I put my hand truck into the 7-Up truck’s bay for the last time, watched by the half-naked woman from an Oh! Calcutta! theater poster, who seemed to possess secrets of how life was really lived.
I’d miss seeing the prostitutes, with whom I felt an odd kinship. One day, when a stack of cases had fallen off my hand truck, and I’d cursed, two of the women had laughed. But I saw it as a symbolic acknowledgement of a bond, that even though we were all bereft in some way, and unknown to each other, we shared a perverse kind of intimacy.
On our way out of the city, we bounced through potholes and coursed through the taxis that covered Broadway like a yellow blanket.
The sidewalk in front of Mifgosh was empty.
PETER DeMARCO was first published in The New York Times when he wrote about hanging out with his idol, writer Mickey Spillane, during his previous career in book publishing. Peter published a Modern Love essay in The New York Times where he wrote about how his path as a love addict led to being selected to the first cohort of the New York City Teaching Fellows in 2000. Peter has been teaching English and film at the High School for Media and Communications in Washington Heights for the past 16 years. Peter’s fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a storySouth Million Writers Award.