City on Fire: The Year Punk Was Born
Garth Risk Hallberg Goes Deep Into NYC History
The following is from Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire.
* * * *
Those first few weeks of grief counseling, Charlie took the LIRR in. He was always late, though; invariably his train would get hung up in the East River tunnel. He couldn’t tell how much time had passed unless he asked other people—his dad’s watch still lay in a coffin-shaped box in his underwear drawer—and they were already looking at him funny because he was doing his nervous humming thing. The stares only made him more nervous, which led to more humming, and when he came out of the subway he’d bolt the last five blocks to the doctor’s and arrive sweaty and short of breath, sucking on his inhaler. Dr. Altschul must have said something to Mom, because after he got his driver’s license, in May, she insisted on his taking the station wagon, as she’d insisted on the counseling in the first place.
The office was on Charles Street, in the half-basement of a brown- stone you wouldn’t necessarily have known was anything other than a residence. Even the discreet plaque below the buzzer—All appointments please ring—made no mention of specialties. This was probably for the peace of mind of clients (patients?), so no one in the waiting room would know what you were there for, who needed board-certified grief counseling and who needed whatever it was Dr. Altschul’s wife (also, confusingly, named Dr. Altschul) did. Honestly, that Dr. Altschul should be married at all was a mind-bender. He was the kind of bosomy overweight man who could make even a beard look sexless. Charlie kept trying to memorize the doctor’s zippered cardigan, so that he could determine at the next session if it was the same one. But as soon as he’d settled in, Dr. Altschul would sort of tip back in his large leather chair and place his hands contentedly on his belly and ask, “So how are we doing this week?” Charlie’s own hands stayed tucked under his thighs. We were doing fine.
Which could mean only one thing: Charlie was still in denial. For eight or ten weeks now, he’d been resisting the pressure of Dr. Altschul’s questions, the Buddha-like invitation of those flattened but not knotted fingers. Charlie focused instead on the oddments of the therapist’s desk and walls—diplomas, little carved-wood statuettes, intricate patterns woven into the tasseled rug. He’d had the suspicion, from the very first, that Dr. Altschul (Bruce, he kept telling Charlie to call him) meant to vacuum out his skull, replace whatever was there with something else. It was connected with the doctor’s studious skirting of the word “father” and its equivalents, which of course kept the person they referred to at the very front of Charlie’s mind. But suppose they were right: the school guidance counselor, his mom. Suppose the dead father lodged in his skull was making him sick, and suppose Dr. Altschul could pry Dad out, like a bad tooth. What, then, would be left of Charlie? So he talked instead about school and pee-wee league, about the Sullivans and Ziggy Stardust. When given a “homework” assignment—think about a moment he’d been scared—he talked about the terrifying dentist his mom used to make him go see on the thirty-eighth floor of the Hamilton-Sweeney Building; how old Dr. DeMoto once scraped his plaque onto a saltine and made him eat it; and how the window, inches away from his chair, gave onto a sheer drop of six hundred feet. Mom had this idea that for the finest care, you had to go to Manhattan. In fact, maybe ponying up for a fancy headshrinker now was contrition for Dad; maybe she thought if he’d been rushed after the second heart attack to a hospital in the City, he’d still be alive. “Heights—that’s what scares me,” Charlie said. “And fires. And snakes.” One of these wasn’t even true. He’d put it in to test Dr. Altschul, or throw him off the trail.
Then one Friday, a month before school ended, he found himself holding forth with unexpected vehemence about Rabbi Lidner. This had been another of his “homework” assignments, to “recover” his feelings about his adoption. “Abe and Izz will do fine with the Torah study, it’s in their blood, but honestly, sometimes I feel sorry for them. They don’t know what they’re in for.”
There was a twitch, a resettling of fingers on the cardigan, like a cellist’s on his instrument, a movement at the corner of the therapeutic mouth too quick for the beard to camouflage. “What is it you feel they’re in for, Charlie?”
“All this stuff about being shepherded, watched over . . . You and I both know it’s bullshit, Doc. If I was any kind of brother, I’d take them aside and tell them.”
“Tell them what? Shall we role-play?”
Charlie let his gaze rest on Dr. Altschul’s pantheistic tchotchkes. “You know. You are alone, you were alone, you will be alone.”
“This is a worldview you have.”
“I’ve only been saying this for like two months now. What I feel is, basically, you’re an alien dropped on a hostile planet, whose inhabitants are constantly trying to tempt you into depending on them. Have you seen The Man Who Fell to Earth?” Charlie’s face was hot, his asthma tightening his throat. “I realize that maybe sounds like a metaphor, but you listen to David Bowie, he’s thinking about what people will face in the future. I guess I’m trying to, too. Because there’s two ways of taking off a band-aid.”
Was it the cardigan he was allergic to? Its lurid flamestitch pattern seemed to fill the room. And right then, in that moment of weakness, was when the doctor pounced. “Charlie, what do you remember about your father?”
All of Charlie’s beautiful rope-a-dope had deserted him. “You make it sound like he died thirty years ago.”
“This is what we call an evasion, Charlie.”
“What if I just said fuck you? Would that be an evasion?”
“It makes you angry when I ask about your father?”
“Is our fifty minutes up?”
“We’ve got another half-hour.”
Charlie resolved to sit there silently with his arms crossed for the remainder of the session, but after a couple of minutes, Dr. Altschul offered to pro-rate. He seemed to feel a little bad, but probably this, too, was a ploy. They obviously trained them not to have feelings. As Charlie rose to open the door, the doctor told him that his “homework” this week was to think about it. A red-haired lady out on the waiting-room couch looked up, curious; Think about what? He had an urge to grab the magazine from her hands and rip it in two. Instead, he said something a girl at school had said to him once: “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.” And fled through the narrow basement door, grazing his head on the overhang.
It was midday now, the air hotter and stiller than it had been when he went in. The lime-green pelt of pollen on the cars boxing in Mom’s wagon let you know they hadn’t been driven in a while. Nor had the street been swept; rotten mulberries from the trees littered the asphalt like dog shit. Charlie kept walking. As the blocks piled up between him and the grief counselor’s office, his indignation ripened into something almost like pleasure. Messiness, death, righteous anger: this was Charlie’s world. It pleased him that the berries were spoiling and the brownstones were falling apart and the plastic window of a convertible he passed was slashed, wires spilling from its dashboard where the radio had been. It was Dr. Altschul who was the freak, hunkered in his anal little cave, trying to sell Charlie on a world that made sense. It was Dr. Bruce Altschul who was in denial.
On Bleecker Street, a speaker out front of a record store blasted Jamaican music. He saw two leather-jacketed boys, one black, one white, loitering inside between deep bins of LPs. Charlie’s normal move would have been to hurry past, but the bright, clear flame of defiance was still lit; woe betide anyone who tried to fuck with him now. Not that the boys even saw him come in. They were not so much loitering, actually, as pretending to loiter, while a person he hadn’t noticed snapped pictures from across the store. “Good,” she said. “That’s great. Except can you try not to look at the camera, dumbass?”
All it took was the voice. It was her: the girl from the ballfield. The hair was different, or maybe it was that the headphones were gone, but her features were still larger than life: the pierced nose, the wide, expressive mouth. He flipped through some nearby records. Quick glances took in more of the boys across the shop. Or men, possibly, in a kind of uniform. Slogans in various hues covered their black jackets, superseded by an identical logo freshly painted on the back of each. The white guy’s hair was short and uneven, as if cut by lawnmower. The black one wore a stocking cap. The camera would make them look lost in contemplation of the record stacks; click, click, it went, a devouring sound, or so Charlie imagined. In reality it was impossible to hear over the deep-dish bass thumping off every surface. Then the white one, the giant one, announced he was bored. “Are we done yet?”
“Are you kidding? You do this like every day, Sol.”
“Yeah, but not in front of a camera. You didn’t tell us that would make it be so boring. Plus Nicky would kill me if he found out. No more cameras, he says.”
“Nicky, Nicky, Nicky. Why should I listen to someone who refuses to even meet—”
“—only ’cause you never put down the fucking camera! Anyway, I got to get to work.”
“Fine, whatever,” the girl said. “I’m out of film anyway. Go screw.” But once the guys drifted out the door, she started aiming her lens around at the perfunctory record store crap, the posters on the wall, the smoldering joss sticks, the caged ferret, et cetera, et cetera. It landed, eventually, on Charlie. The eye not blocked by the camera opened and then narrowed, as if to bring a memory into focus. “Hey, wait a minute. I know you. How do I know you?”
When he tried to speak, the heavy patchouli odor became a tickle at the back of his throat, leading to a coughing fit, and then wheezing, and ultimately to the inhaler. “The VFW field,” he managed finally, little tears in the corners of his eyes. “You had headphones on.” And did the universal sign language for headphones.
“Oh, shit, that’s right. What are you doing here, though?”
He looked over at where the matching jackets had been. “What’s anybody doing here?” he said. “Getting the hell off Long Island.”
Back there in the dugout, the girl had been a schoolkid, like Charlie; now she was the emissary of some more adult world. “Listen, I’ve been up since yesterday morning, and I’ve got to get some caffeine. You want to come with?” He wondered if she wasn’t hustling him out of the store to spare herself the embarrassment of being seen with him, should her friends return, but outside she stuck out her hand. “I’m Sam, by the way. I didn’t mean to give you the third degree back there.”
“Jesus, no. It’s just weird running into you again like this. Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“I had a doctor’s appointment. Otherwise, my mom wouldn’t let me drive in.”
“Right, the bloodhound. I remember.” She lit a cigarette. He willed himself not to cough. “My dad can be pretty bad, too, but he thinks I had a volleyball tournament last night. All he’d have to do to verify I’ve never touched a volleyball in my life would be to pick up the phone, but then he’d have to have me around and, like, talk to me instead of hiding out in his workshop. And anyway, who would want to miss all this?” It was true. Greenwich Village on a Friday at lunchtime was the opposite of everything Charlie hated about the suburbs. People everywhere, street musicians, smells of fifteen different foods floating out of the propped-open doors. In a smoky luncheonette, she led him to a booth by the window and ordered two coffees. The waitress stared at her until Sam said, “What?”
“You couldn’t order egg salad or something? This is becoming an everyday thing, Sam.”
“I’ll make it worth your while—promise.”
The coffee came in paper cups, as if inviting them to vamoose, but she picked hers up and blew on it and took a drink, black. “So what’s wrong with you?”
“Huh?” he said.
“Your doctor’s appointment.”
“It’s, um . . . not that kind of doctor.”
“Well, obviously, in this neck of the woods, and if you’re driving in by yourself. It’s a shrink, right? I meant, are your folks splitting up, or what’s the story?”
“My dad—” Charlie coughed again. When he’d finished, his voice came out quieter than he meant it to. “My dad died in February. Right before I saw you, I guess.”
“Fuck! You should have said something. Are you okay?” she said, and put a hand on his hand. His heart almost stopped.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I respect that. Most guys, they’d just use something like that to get in your pants.”
Outside, pigeons scrabbled over scraps at the curb. He pretended to like coffee, and after a while did. “You must come here a lot, to know the waitresses.”
“After my mom split on us, my dad decided to spring for a fancy school.” He admired the casual way she repaid his confidence with a confidence. “It’s right around the corner. And I start at NYU in the fall. I should only be a senior, but I skipped a grade.”
“And your friends, the guys at the record store . . . ?”
She smiled. “Sol, the tall one, I know through his girlfriend, who I know from shows. I’ve been putting together this little like magazine thing, trying to document the scene. But it took me three months before his friends would let me take photographs. One of them still won’t. They can be funny about who they let in.”
“I meant do they go to school with you.”
“School’s not punk.”
“I can see I’m going to have to educate you.”
He used a spoon to dredge up the coffee-browned sugar crystals from the bottom of his cup and licked them, like a bee harvesting nectar. “I’m highly educable.”
For some reason, it made her laugh. “Anyone ever told you you’re a charmer, Charlie?”
He shrugged; no one ever had.
“Seriously, Sol and those other guys, the Post-Humanists, their idea of changing the world is just to say no to everything. I don’t think you can really change anything unless you’re willing to say yes. No, I’ve already decided. Us Flower Hill kids have to stick together. You’re going to be my project.”
Charlie felt that perhaps there was something not right about this, implying as it did a need for improvement. On the other hand, it was a nice day, he was no longer in the therapist’s office, and he had the attention of a beautiful girl. Out on the street again, they dumped their empty coffee cups into an overfull trashcan. Charlie wasn’t deft enough to avoid bringing a whole mortifying mound of soda bottles and newspapers and Styrofoam takeout containers crashing down around his Hush Puppies, but Sam just laughed again, and it wasn’t the kind of laughter that subtracted anything; it was a warm breeze lifting him up.
Then Sam was planting her fingers around Charlie’s shoulder blades and propelling him back through the door of the record store. The register was on a raised platform near the back. The bearlike clerk, too, seemed to know Sam, for he nodded at her from on high. Charlie drifted over to the B’s and began to flip through Ba, Be, Bi, Bo. The Bowie selection was impressive, at least compared to the cruddy little strip-mall storefront he was used to. There was a colored-vinyl single of “Suffragette City” and an expensive live recording with a sticker that said Import. He wanted to look at it more closely, but as soon as he saw Sam coming he put the record back in its place and reached for another tab at random.
“George Benson? Yikes!”
“What? No. I was just goofing around.”
“Well, here’s your first mission, should you choose to accept it.” She handed him a 45.
There was a turntable near the register where you could listen to records pre-purchase. Sam placed the headphones on Charlie’s head—a weirdly intimate gesture—and cued up the B side and watched his face while he listened. At first, he thought there was something wrong with the headphones; the music was a distant tempest of revved-up drums and guitars. But when the instruments locked up and the chanting started, he understood it was a style: amateur, noisy, aggressive. It was anger heated to the boiling point where it became a sort of joy—the very feeling Charlie had felt this morning, storming out of the doctor’s office. When he looked up, Sam’s mouth was moving. He took off the headphones. “What?”
“It is amazing. But I don’t have any money.”
“I’ll buy it for you.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
“Sure you can. Anyway, I owe you.”
“You said you have a car, right? You’re driving me home.”
And so he did, doing his best to kick his eight-tracks under the seats of the station wagon so she wouldn’t be able to read the labels. She lived on the other side of Flower Hill, where the development stopped, in a white-sided ranch house with a hill sloping down behind it. As they sat at the curb out front, she made no move to go. From the backyard came a noise like the drone of a plane. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Only my dad. If he’s not sleeping, he’s working.”
He felt like he should say something else, ceremonialize the moment. Not that this had been a date or anything like that, but it had been more or less the happiest he’d been since back before the twins.
“Well, thanks for the education.”
“Yeah, no sweat.”
“Maybe we could hang out again some time.”
“Do you think you could get this car? We could hit the city in style.”
“Sure. My mom never goes much of anywhere these days. She’s studying for her real-estate license. And she’s got to take care of my brothers.”
“You didn’t say you had brothers.”
“Twins, yeah. They’re just babies.”
“You’re a real mystery man, Charlie. I didn’t know we had any of those left in suburbia.” She used a finger to write her phone number in the dust on the dash. “Call me this week and we’ll figure something out. And don’t forget to listen to the A side. There will be a quiz.”
As she tripped across the lawn to her front door, he tried to file away the contours of her jeans and the exact shade of her hair. Brown was too . . . prosaic somehow. More like a butter-rum Life Saver. Then—what was he, some kind of numbnuts?—he scrabbled under the seat for a pen and copied her phone number onto the crinkly paper of the record-store bag. That night, as he began wearing out the grooves on “City on Fire!” by Ex Post Facto, he would touch the inked digits every five minutes or so, as if to reassure himself that the wind hadn’t blown them away.
* * * *
For the prophet Charlie Weisbarger, that would be the year punk started: 1976. Later, as he learned more, it would seem like other years had a claim on the title, 1974, 1975, late Stooges, early Ramones, but that spring-into-summer was when the culture first made itself known to him. On Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, he would pick Sam up at her house or, if she’d stayed out the night before, meet her in the Village. They would goof around, shoplifting from drugstores, magic-markering song lyrics on the boards surrounding demolition sites, and collecting discreet photos of the ratty kids you saw more and more on the streets of Manhattan, down where the grid went crooked, the ragged and dispofuckingsessed. Often in her bag she had a bottle from the liquor cabinet back home—it had been her mom’s; her dad’s drink of choice was beer—and when she found out Charlie couldn’t smoke grass on account of his asthma, she proved adept at coming up with airplane glue and Quaaludes and painkillers, the greens and the blues. These latter made time stretch; he had memories of looking up from stoops they’d plopped down on, smiling at the various freaks who paraded by. The City comforted him in a way the Island never really could, because it was impossible, just statistically, for him to be the freakiest person here. Once, he squatted with her near the entrance of a Carvel store watching strange hats, ripped pants, cosmic boots go marching by, with chocolate ice cream running down his fingers like mud. (His left hand felt like it belonged to someone else—occasionally handy in private, but awkward most of the rest of the time.) A passing homosexual in tiny shorts clucked and shook his head at the pair of them, the poor lost children, and Charlie couldn’t help making a wisecrack, as if Mickey Sullivan was still around. But he backpedaled when Sam, citing the principle of freak solidarity, called him on it. “I meant it as like a tribute,” he said. “The way certain kinds of blasphemy refer to God.”
“You’re not as dumb as you look, are you?” she teased him, and he could feel a bubble of warm liquor expanding and rising in his head.
“You’re the one who skipped a year, College Girl.”
“No, I’m a lot of things, but I’m not smart like you, Charlie. You’re like the smartest dimwit I know.”
Then came the endless hours at that luncheonette of hers, trying to sober up on coffee before the drive home. She told him more about how her mom had taken off with a yoga instructor, and he talked a little bit about his adoption, and his dad.
Mostly, though, they talked about music. Punk was a jealous god, who could not abide the existence of other musics besides itself, so Charlie didn’t dare tell Sam about his enduring affection for Honky Château, but having steeped himself in photostatted ’zines, he could now talk knowledgeably about Radio Birdman and Teenage Jesus and the Hunger Artists and argue the relative merits of Ex Post Facto and Patti Smith. In private, he thought Horses might be the greatest album ever made; a song called “Birdland” he must have listened to a thousand times. Out loud, though, he agreed with her that the demise of the bassist, and subsequently of the band, made Ex Post Facto’s Brass Tactics the more valuable document. She’d dubbed it for him on eight-track, and they sat in the car near the West Side Highway coming down off glue and soaking in the majesty of the music. He cranked the volume as high as it would go, because he wouldn’t be able to give it the decibels it deserved at home; his mom was a master of defeating the purpose. That whole time he was hanging out with Sam, she thought he was at therapy or at the beach with Shel Goldbarth, or seeing Jaws three times in a row at the Hempstead Triplex. Consequently, the latest he could manage to stay out was his ten o’clock curfew. Just when Sam was getting ready to head to the Sea of Clouds or CBGB, he’d be exiled again to Long Island. He would stop at a gas station to rub soap on his shirt to cover the smell of Sam’s cigarettes and to gargle away the pasty aftertaste of pills with the travel-sized bottle of mouthwash he carried. Mom never mentioned how clean he smelled; she was usually in bed when he got home anyway. He suspected she was just relieved he’d found the friends he seemed to be spending so much time with, per Dr. Altschul’s “prescription.”
Only one thing about it bothered him, really: What was in it for Sam? She had this whole other p.m. life in which Charlie couldn’t participate, except to drag out of her on the phone the next day every ecstatic detail of whatever show she’d been to. She could have spent the days, too, hanging out with her cooler friends, Sol Grungy and the others. And yet, when Charlie was around, those long afternoons, it was just him and her. He wasn’t a total moron; he knew she liked having the Weisbarger family wagon at her disposal. But was that really why she was spending so much time with him? Or did she, like . . . like him, or something?
* * * *
“Charlie, this isn’t about our last session, is it? Because we’re going to have to talk about that sooner or later. I’m a grief counselor, remember.”
“That has nothing to do with this, Bruce. It’s a decision I came to on my own.”
“And how does your mother feel about it?”
“She’s not the one who has to come sit here. I’m old enough to think for myself.”
“The goal of therapy isn’t really for you to be . . . how did you put it—”
“Cured. Besides which, we’ve never really gotten down to what you’re grieving about.”
“But if I can’t be cured, what would be the point of doing all this? Or can’t you imagine there’s any way for a person to grow or change without a shrink being involved?” He and Sam had practiced. “And why doesn’t therapy ever seem to make anyone better? It’s like some kind of perpetual motion machine.”
“I’m hearing hostility in your voice, Charlie, that makes me think there’s a personal element here. If that’s the case, you should know that there are many other counselors with different approaches. I’d be happy to refer you across the hall to my wife, for example, or to a different practice altogether.”
“Nope, Doc. I’m telling you. Cured.”
The counselor studied him. The ends of his fingers pushed up from the nubbly cardigan like a range of small mountains. Charlie had never before noticed he was double-jointed. “Well in that case, I guess we’re done here. Though I’ll have to bill you for the whole hour.”
“Send it to my mom,” he said, and walked out of the office and toward the end of the block, where Sam was waiting, whistling the opening bars of “Gloria.” The Patti version.
From CITY ON FIRE. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2015 by Garth Risk Hallberg.
Photograph by David Godlis.