Skip to main content

Magazine Skin

Jilly and I used to go for walks around the neighborhood after dinner. We lived near Times Square, back in the days when West 46th Street still boasted the highest murder rate in town. One evening, on the way up 9th Avenue to watch show-off Broadway dancers in their fishbowl rehearsal studio, we passed a 1970s aircraft carrier-style station wagon, more crashed than parked. The motor was running.

A chubby balding Chinese man sat slumped at the wheel. Drool stained the front of his pale blue work-shirt. The car was stuffed to the shredded upholstery rafters with magazines.

"This newspaper delivery boy strayed and got seriously lost along his route."

Jilly thought it might be conceptual art. "Or maybe he does flea markets cross-country."

The stacked magazines were seriously worn. The piles weren't neat, didn't seem to be arranged by year or subject matter. They weren't bound together, fastened to anything or stored in containers, which meant sudden stops were potentially life-threatening. The cab was also full of smoke, which I attributed to spontaneous mildew combustion, or a dropped cigarette or ashtray overflow which resulted in a slow burn through slick paper. Maybe the guy was deeply involved in bizarre barbecue hara-kiri peep-show suicide.

Not a homeowner. No garage to afford carbon-monoxide asphyxiation self-snuff privacy. Didn't really want to die. Secretly hoped someone would step in and convince him life's worth living.

The enormous archaic beater-wagon had Florida plates.

Suicidal periodicals-obsessed Chinese guy drove all the way to New York Kitty Genovese Fuckin' City, where nobody wants to get involved.

Jilly was already a hundred feet up the block.

My brain temporarily disavowed big city mentality. I rapped on the window.

The Chinese guy jumped a foot. Charlie-horsed his exposed pale hairless thigh on the steering wheel. He was wearing gray-striped summertime mailman shorts. He thrashed, accidentally honked the horn with his elbow. He bulged his eyes, mouthed words. A thin clear string of drool escaped his lips.

Must've thought I was a cop or something. Cops occasionally help people, but usually sudden police presence means trouble. The Chinese guy must've thought I was the trouble kind of cop, and held up his hands. I played along, signaled for him to open the window.

"Shut off your engine please, sir."

Maybe the Chinese guy didn't understand English. He wiped drool on his wrist, nervously fumbled for cigs in his torn shirt-pocket. I did motor-killing key-turn hand-jive. He shakily complied. The engine died with sputtering sounds, a tubercular piston-cough. The Chinese guy opened the door, got out. He needed air, sucked it in hard.

Nobody could charge me with masquerading as an officer. I didn't ask to see a license or recite the Miranda mantra, but I inspected his vehicle. The only probable cause I had going for me was, I was curious. Women's fashion, sports, fancy automobiles, comic books, movie star scandal-sheets, trade publications for various extinct and near-extinct trades…enough slick fodder for every dentist's office in the USA. Not a Chinese rag in sight. Ashtrays stuffed with various-brand butts, burned to the filter and past. Overpowering reek of stale smoke, sad tang of outdated pulp, sweat, infrequent laundry, takeout containers chucked, buried, forgotten. Fuzzy dice and a tiny red paper lantern with a swinging tassel on the rearview mirror. Puerto Rican witchcraft plastic saint figurine Krazy Glued to the crumbling cracked black dashboard. As I dug deeper, I expected to turn up rats, cockroaches, feces, human remains.

Jilly backtracked, grabbed my shirt. "He's OK. Leave him alone. Let's go."

There wasn't enough build-up to work with. I needed to hear the punch-line before I could re-create the body of the joke and split the scene.

"What's the matter, mister? What happened?"

The Chinese guy shook his head in repetitive-motion amnesiac horror. The Hell's Kitchen equivalent of oxygen hit his brain, jump-started the neuronic motor. He got back in the car, started up and fishtailed back into traffic, raising a riot of brake-screeches and horn glissandos. Loose magazines shifted, and nearly flipped the big station wagon as he desperately straightened out. I ran into the street to watch him go. He rushed through four near-miss lights, went under the bus terminal overpasses and out of sight, due either to the Earth's natural curvature or some New York Twilight Zone tele-transportation effect. I wasn't a cop. I took the exam, but then changed my mind or chickened out. So I didn't have a squad car or -motorcycle to pursue the suspect, and anyway, I couldn't hold a Chinese guy for questioning without evidence of wrongdoing or habeas corpus. Unlawful citizen's arrest might be punishable by fine or community service.

Further up 9th Avenue, surgical theater lights shone on over-dramatic dancers in a rectangular room with a blond wood floor and mirror-panel walls. Practice is usually a private affair, not for public consumption. Show-biz babies bust their humps for a chance to wag their asses on Broadway for a shot at fame and the big bucks. Every minute, every movement has to count. Takes practice, to get used to being observed. Show-biz show-offs even want people to watch them perform their mistakes. White Venetian blinds on the floor-to-ceiling picture windows could've been lowered anytime. Nobody fell down. Nobody cut left when the troupe cut right. A speaker bolted to the outside wall broadcast the inner dance-track. Passersby had to pretend to ignore the dance rehearsal going on inside.

Practice was a free show to attract potential paying suckers. I watched, but couldn't stop trying to figure out what happened to the Chinese guy in the station wagon:

An arranged-marriage Chinese wife somewhere, weary of her slob stranger-husband's inexplicable roundeye-devil magazine collection obsession, told him to get lost. He thought she meant it literally.

A notorious backdated publications fetishist died in his sleep. The super at the death house hauled his trove out onto the street, left it there.

A Chinese illegal immigrant who grubbed through dumpsters, raided recycling piles and the sad apartment-clearing lifetime accumulations outside buildings where pack-rat tenants have died thought he'd hit the motherlode, was bitterly surprised when he could find no one willing to buy his treasure. Destitute Chinese scavenger, stuck with a carload of worthless dead magazine stock, was forced to hit the road.

Job-lot minimum bid on a used magazine store's going-out-of-business sale was too good a bargain to pass up. The Chinese guy forgot about warehouse expenses and the gwai loh landlord's third eviction notice. Couldn't understand the legalese on writs, injunctions and Court Orders. Couldn't understand English, period. Eviction is a white devil concept, incomprehensible to Chinese. Synchronicity conspires against hopeful small businessmen as often as it rescues them. The nice old man who sold him the mags in a seemingly sweet deal and even helped him load the station wagon wouldn't take them back. Reiterated no-refund policy was yet another alien concept. The man wasn't friendly anymore, threatened to call the police and have the Chinese guy arrested for littering if he left stacks of magazines on the sidewalk.

Or else:

"Thanks for all your help, Yu-Lin. Aunt Flossie was so fond of her magazine subscription collections and her old station wagon. So she wanted you to have them, for being such a good houseboy all these years. She didn't say anything about wages owed, health insurance or pension plans. Not in the will anyway. No, you can't stay here. We already sold the house. The marshals will come unless you scram immediately. But I heard New York decorators pay big money for magazine collections and vintage automobiles. New York City…that-a-way. Goodbye."

Just before the live music ruckus started in a Brooklyn nightclub, a girl in an Op Art thrift shop dress told me she had three tits. Maybe someone who knew she had three tits told her I wrote girl-copy at the World's Raunchiest Tit-Mag for a living. But that mysterious person probably would've already told me about a three-titted girl he or she knew personally. Physical deformity's not usually something girls blab to anyone who'll listen. So maybe the nice young lady in the eye-popping old clothes just wanted to wander towards a complete stranger and tell him she had an extra breast for the sheer hell of it.

She was nice-looking. I scoped her conventional unspectacular cleavage, checked for a bonus bump.

But I was looking in the wrong place. The third tit, she said, was on her lower back, left side.

"At first I thought it was a gross cyst or something so I went to the doctor. He poked, prodded, took a biopsy and an X-ray. Called the next day and said the lump was normal healthy displaced excess breast tissue. No way I could tell, since there's no nipple on it or nothing. Wasn't always there, it just…developed. I was a late-bloomer in high school too. Surgery, anesthesia? No thanks. I decided to leave it. Might need to get a job at the Freak Show someday, you never know. Or the Freak Show Strip Club."

She let me cop a feel. But only of the freaky third tit on her lower back. Too bad, because Jilly wasn't around and life doesn't toss tit-squeeze freebies around with anything like lush extravagance.

A Chinese guy palmed a tit he wasn't legally entitled to grope. His wife witnessed the extramarital fondle-job and said, hit the road, Chiang-gai Jack.

A Chinese guy took an I-Ching shot in the dark, answered a personal ad in the back of an appealingly incomprehensible foreign magazine. The resultant love story with a lonely Florida non-smoking widow didn't work out, but he didn't give up hope. He packed his collection of glossy love and dreams into the biggest cheap used car Florida had to offer and took off.