A Gypsy Night
Today is the day, I think, with excitement and trepidation. Today is the day I will finally go into the Gypsy Parlor, which has been beckoning me from across the street for almost 20 years. Until today I’d always resisted and trusted my own inner voice instead. But now it was time to seek out a possible higher power.
I have a bit of a mailbox phobia. For a few months after I send a new manuscript to publishers, I break out in a cold sweat and my hands shake as I try to insert my little mailbox key into the lock. I have also developed obsessive-compulsive mail rules. Never check the box on a Friday. Bad news will ruin my weekend. Don’t open it on Monday or Tuesday either, as rejection letters will throw off my ability to concentrate at my day job. Let the mail sit over holidays and before vacations.
If the doorman tells me that I have an oversized envelope that the post woman Stacey could not fit into my box, I tell him to hold it until Wednesday or Thursday, the only two days I will look at my mail.
My O.C.D. behavior and sweats are symptoms of a man who has spent almost a third of his life writing four novels and countless short stories without a single one finding a publisher. As I waited for responses about my fifth, I began to ponder with much fear and doubt whether this is going to be my last shot. Maybe it’s time to join the ranks of The Average Joes of New York City, give up on my dream and just be a plain old Nobody. A dreadful thought but an existence I might nevertheless be forced to finally come to terms with. At 55, I wasn’t getting any younger, my finances were strained to the max and my relationships were suffering. I had fought the good fight but maybe it’s time to hang up the gloves once and for all?
How does one make such a radical change?
I was an unpublished novelist with a mediocre day job, so I decided that I needed a mystical sign that would point my compass in the right direction. This was too big to handle on my own or even seek advice from mere mortals. I was certain. The gypsy would foresee my writing future.
Even though I dislike routines, I, like everybody, have many of them. I awake at 5:30 in the morning. Then I drink two cups of coffee as I sit at my computer and read what I wrote the night before. Then I eat, shower, shave and dress in casual attire. Finally, I head out onto the streets of midtown Manhattan and walk to my day job.
When I return to my apartment after work, I change into even more casual attire, pour a glass of chardonnay, slide the glass terrace door open and step out onto my small but precious outdoor space. Although I have two folding patio chairs and a small round table, which takes up almost half the space, I remain standing and lean against the waist-high brick wall, topped off with a metal rail, and take in my limited view of Manhattan.
This time spent on my balcony is the start to my writing process, transitioning from the material to the existential.
After twenty years, I never tire of the Chrysler Building’s majestic spire, a mere ten blocks uptown on East 42nd Street. I delight when the iconic skyscraper’s lights flick on – a crown jewel over the city. My unobstructed view of the Chrysler Building uptown, the Empire State Building to the west, and a scant view of the East River from the balcony is why I told the real estate agent, “I’ll take this one” two decades ago. In the ever-changing skyline of the city, I feel fortunate that my trifecta vista will remain unobstructed, since an Armenian Church, a school and a hospital occupy the airspace behind me. Over the years I have seen buildings go up, almost in a flash, changing what my eyes have become comfortable with. Manhattan is the canvas of a perpetually dissatisfied artist.
As the wine in my glass goes from top to bottom, so does my gaze over my own personal cityscape. Every level of the city is its own biosphere and the liveliest is the one at street level, the ground floor New York, the sidewalks, streets, entrances and exits. Taking my final sip, I look toward Third Avenue where traffic has thinned and then down and directly below to East 33rd street. People who were once scurrying to get to work via subways or buses have now been replaced by dog walkers and strolling couples checking out curbside restaurant menus.
Over the years, I’ve seen the storefronts below me on East 33rd between Lexington and Third Avenues change countless times from one type of business to another. The ebb and flow of Manhattan life is a writer’s dream. My expression has always been, “Writer’s block? Take a walk around the city, and the words start flowing!”
The current sushi place, I recall, used to be an Italian restaurant, and before that it was a little local hardware store. The same day dry cleaner that recently opened replaced a woman’s shoe store that went out of business, and before that it was a bakery where the smell of fresh baked cakes and bread would waft up to my apartment.
The one and only constant on 33rd street, through it all, has been the place with the purple neon sign in cursive letters glowing eerily in the window of a drooping white tenement building: PSYCHIC. The thought never occurred to me, until just now, that the neon purple sign was always lit, twenty-four hours a day. On comfortable nights a woman always sits alone beneath the sign right in front of a large glass window. She is middle-aged and wears a colorful and loose flowing gown. Her long hair is graying and pulled back. It’s the same woman I have glanced at so many nights before. I remember her when her hair was jet black, shoulder length, and wavy and her clothes much neater.
Unlike the former hardware store and bakery, I’ve never visited the Psychic shop. Today, I sense it is my destiny to walk down and visit the neighborhood psychic for the very first time. A wave of exhilaration and warmth moves through my body like wine.
Manhattanites all seem to walk with a purpose. The culture is to move as if getting to your destination is urgent, even if it is not. Of course, there are stragglers and many who step out of stride but, for the most part, there is a set pace. Mine is no different. No matter how decompressed I become in the comfort of my apartment, once I hit the sidewalk, I, too, get into that got-to-get-there pace. Tonight, however, is a rare exception.
With my usual quick-step, I should have made it to the Psychic shop in three minutes tops, but I dawdle and hug the storefronts, staying out of the sidewalk’s flow, which should have carried me just one block uptown and around the corner in no time at all.
The restaurants along Third Avenue are abuzz with activity. The after-work dinner crowd mingles at undersized tables set side by side. They are festooned with young professional men with loosened neckties and women in high heels. Passionate gazes meet over drinks and conversations seem intense. Bread baskets and wine bottles adorn white-clothed tables. The balmy evening is perfect for being outdoors.
I cross 33rd street and veer left. Directly in front of me is a crowded and noisy Mexican cantina. Before being Mexican, it used to be a Texas BBQ, and way before that it was a Persian rug merchant’s showroom and warehouse. For ten years, the Shamani Brothers had a faded paper banner in their window announcing that they were having a Going Out of Business Sale. Eventually, it actually happened as the neighborhood improved, rents got jacked-up and the Mom-and-Pops and importer/exporters gave way to restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The “hood” had now become hip.
Some long-time residents complain that the neighborhood was better years ago, but I always accept that change is an inevitable part of the natural cycle of neighborhoods and life. However, I did vow to never again eat at the trendy Mexican cantina after one dinner I had there with friends when it first opened. I realized after the first bite of my overstuffed, cheese sauce drenched chicken burrito that the Mexican cantina was in business primarily to peddle overpriced margaritas and piña coladas to yuppies, and that food quality was secondary. Nevertheless, I slow my walk further and stop, trying to appear as if I am studying the menu near the hostess stand because, out of the corner of my eye, I can now see the woman sitting in front of the Psychic Shop, a mere four doorways down the street.
I press my hands deep into my pockets and saunter toward my artistic destiny.
As I approach, I avoid making eye contact with the woman seated in front of the old walk-up. Slowly, I look beyond her, above her and down to the ground. I have an urge to walk right past it all and turn into the sushi place, pretending that was my intention from the start. However, my hesitant body language betrays me.
“Good eve-a-ning,” the woman says as I step in front of her.
“Oh, hi. How are you?” I act surprised.
“On such a bee-u-tee-full night how could I be any better? Look at glow of full moon, and there is such nice breeze coming from river. This cools me. And I smell ocean, too. Do you smell the sea, too?
I hesitate and look up at the moon, which is indeed looming larger and brighter over the city than usual.
“You know, now that you mention it, I do smell the salt water. We are so close to it.” I motion with my hand, pointing beyond Third Avenue toward First Avenue and FDR Drive. “Right down there is the East River. How easy it is to forget about the water when we are surrounded by all these tall buildings and noise.”
The neon sign’s luminous glow is bathing the woman’s white skin with a pinkish hue. Multicolored beads drape down her neck in a tangle, hanging gently on her light cotton blouse. Large gold hoop earrings and bangle bracelets accent her old world appearance. Her clothing is otherworldly compared to the contemporary women just a few steps away at the cantina. The vibes this gypsy woman are giving out make my writer’s intuition tingle. I am sure that I am straddling the threshold of my future. I am about to discover the truth beyond.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” says the Gypsy woman.
“Excuse me?” I reply.
“I said, I’ve been waiting for you!”
“Oh, I get it. You’re a psychic. I bet you must tell everyone this.”
“No, not so true,” she replies. “I know you and I think you know me too. I mean it.”
“Well, I’ve seen you sitting out here from my balcony for many years, if that’s what you mean. But I can’t say I actually know you.”
“We shall see,” utters the Gypsy. “We shall come to know.”
Now I start to have second thoughts about seeking out my future from a sidewalk psychic. “I must be crazy,” I think. “Maybe I should let the fortune cookie at the Chinese take-out place send me a sign instead? I’m out of here.”
“Well, good night, it was nice talking to you,” I say, preparing to walk away. “I’m going next door to get dinner, some sushi,” I add unnecessarily.
“No, I don’t think so. Here, sit, sit here, let us talk. I think you did not come for sushi – am I correct?”
I stop in my tracks and study her face. “You’re right. I didn’t walk down here for sushi.”
“Good then,” says the woman.
“Aren’t we supposed to go inside? In there – you know where Tarot cards and psychic things are?” I wonder aloud, a bit nervous.
“No, no need psychic things. Just sit here, outside, please.”
“Okay.” I sit down on the other metal folding chair next to her and let out a large sigh. I survey my surroundings. I feel strange, but at the same time oddly relaxed. There’s an indescribable familiarity about this scene.
“You live up there. That is where I know you.” The Gypsy woman points across the street above the Armenian Church and directly at my 11th floor balcony. I left the lights on, assuming that I would be back in no time at all. Make dinner, maybe write some and then read. “You have lived there for many years – maybe twenty. And you are writer, a very serious and dedicated writer. Sometimes you type very late into the morning.”
I can’t believe my ears. “How on earth do you know that? What the…”
“I told you – I know you. You think I was kidding you – some kind of Gypsy trick?”
“Yes – I mean no. I mean – I never met you – I don’t know you…” I stammer.
“I know you and you know me. We’re no strangers.”
“How – How are you…?”
Finally, she reveals her secret. “I see you live there for twenty years, because I live here all my life from little girl. Gypsy people notice all.”
“Wait – Wait – you have been watching me from down here all these years? “
“Yes – and you watch me, no?”
I am completely spellbound.
“Look at me closely – see me younger woman – see me with long shiny black hair – see me sitting here on cool breezy night from up there. Do you see now?”
“I – I – I – Oh, my God. You are right. But I was not watching you – you were there – part of the city – the neighborhood – like everything else – you know?”
“I know,” she says.
“This is too strange,” I say, shaking my head.
“I listen to all the problems of people in the city. I know more than Head Doctor – what you call Shrink,” the Gypsy declares. “Now let me be psychic – okay?”
I am dazed. “Okay – whatever – go ahead?”
“You have come to ask me if you are good writer?”
I try to avert the psychic’s bull’s-eye.
“I’m not sure why I came. Why do most people come?”
“They come for many reason – but I think you come to ask me about life as writer, yes?”
“Well – maybe – okay. This is what you do – so okay – yes – so let this be my question…”
“Okay, no more psychic now – I just tell you.”
“I watch this building, your building, light on – light off – all the time. So many people come and go – stay one year maybe two or three – always move. You stay – a few others too, but you stay long time, no?”
“Yes – almost twenty years – amazing,” I agree.
“Sometimes you have friends and family. They come for happy visit, no? But I think what makes you most happy is writing stories – is this not true?”
“That’s right. I have family and a few very good friends and neighbors too, and yes I enjoy writing – I mean I love writing – but it’s not easy…”
“Nothing is as you say easy – especially writing I know, but yes this is good – I see this,” says the Gypsy.
“On warm day, you come out in morning – with shirt off and take in sun – you enjoy this nature beauty, no?”
“Yes, I like the summer and the sun very much.”
“This good thing too. Many balcony in New York City but most people no use. You come out at night and look at sky and city and drink wine and think about life – this good thing for writer too – ask many questions – be in touch with nature and many different people too, no?”
“Yes – my life is like this. You are correct about me in many ways. This is amazing. I can’t believe you know all this. There are so many buildings, so many apartments, and so many balconies. Why an interest in me?”
“I tell you Gypsy people see all! You live alone, mostly, but I think you not lonely! I think writers live in imagination and this is why they can spend many hours like this in life, and be happy.”
I shrink down in my chair. That comment strikes me on a deeply personal level.
“You have regular job, some passions, but you take trips, many adventures. Maybe to mountains, to the sea, to foreign lands but you always come back to city. You have home, but you wander like Gypsy people too.”
“I like to travel, yes.”
“And when you travel do you write too?”
“Of course. I’m always writing, in my head.”
“I see. And when you write in your head do you think about money, selling stories, being big shot famous man like Mr. Ernest Hemingway?”
“No, it’s just the way I think and live. Of course, it would be nice to have my books appreciated and, let’s be honest, make some money too. Maybe just enough to quit my day job.”
“Oh, I see,” she says with a conclusive nod of her head and slight smile. “So now you ask me the question yourself this time.”
“Okay. Should I continue to write or chuck it all down the drain? Is this what you want to hear from me?”
“Now you answer too.”
“Yes, I believe I have a good life.”
“Good,” she says and sits back.
We both become silent while intoxicated laughter from the cantina crowd ricochets around the buildings.
We study the moon. Then I say, “And you?”
“Me? I was born in this building and I will die in this building. This is Gypsy building – passed down from generation to generation for over 100 years. ”
“I had no idea,” I say.
The Gypsy seems to look into me with deep dark eyes.
“I am Romani woman with no place to roam,” she says, laughing.
I see the irony in her predicament and then join in her laughter.
She stands up and says, “You go now – no need come back. I think you have answer.”
“But, but no – I don’t have an answer. Just maybe more questions.”
“In psychic world, everything not black and white, but truth always come out…”
The Gypsy woman stands up, which signals the end of the session. I start to reach for my wallet and say, “How much do I owe you for your time?”
“I prefer not to take money from you.”
“But I insist.”
“Okay, usually I charge $60, but for you, my writer friend and neighbor, I take $25. Is this fair?”
“Very fair, thank you.”
“Have good full moon night.”
“You too. Good night and thanks.”
As I pass the cantina on my way home, I see the crowd has thinned and it occurs to me that I haven’t eaten yet. There’s a $1 slice of pizza place on the other side of Third Avenue that used to be a tanning salon, and before that it used to be an ice cream store. I cross over to get a slice.
“What’ll it be, pal?” the man behind the counter asks me. He’s a dying breed, a real New Yorker.
“One slice and a small coke, please.”
I study the man’s face. He looks like an old boxer. His ears are bent and disfigured and his nose is pushed to one side with scarred eyebrows over his dark eyes – a face one might only find selling slices in a place like this in a city like this.
I pay for my slice and soda and head back to my apartment. I turn on my computer and open up a blank Word document. My first sentence:
“What’ll it be, pal?” the man with the broken face asks.