Estelle, a Memory from Washington Heights


The last person I needed to bump into at Penn Station. What was she doing this far south in midtown Manhattan? Due to the nature of things it rang true of the fucking inevitable. Only in New York, where a person could remain anonymous for a lifetime could this happen. The Republican Convention had thrown the city into a spin and the cops had assumed something of a higher order. Everyone and everything was beneath them and they were there to keep reprobates like myself far from Madison Square Garden. Except, Estelle and I had slipped through the net.


Jesse’s Place, Washington Heights, c2004

For that reason I ran into Estelle at midnight on the platform for the A train. On any given day not affected by the Convention, rather the 360 other days of 2004 that weren’t affected, we would never have seen one another. We would have entered at different ends of the platform having not been led on a merry dance through the ramps and underpasses of the station so that we could all be observed and herded together for security reasons.

New York City is a place I know and I place I can escape in and hide. Here among the millions of people coming and going, filling their days, not missing a minute. Gym, dinner, drinks, seeing friends, relatives, exhibitions, coffee, the park, rollerblading, jogging. This incessant need to complete a quota of activities every day. What happened to the good old-fashioned way of things, work, hang out, catch a flick or have a drink and crash in front of some shitty new reality TV show?  It was a busy place even before 9/11 and now it seemed that it had only gotten busier. People were striving to live more in a frenzy of desire, concern and fatalism. And it was written on 9/11. Thou shall live every day as if it is your last.

As for me. I could go days here without properly speaking to anyone. Or doing anything. A real conversation I mean or real activities. Short of discussing the price of milk with the clerk in my local deli, ordering a slice of pizza to go and helping a tourist out with their bearings north, south, east or west, or having an email conversation with someone in a different time zone, I could evade all real human contact. And this was precisely what I wanted. Things were going swimmingly, and then I saw Estelle.

Had I been blessed with far sighted eyes, I would have ducked behind one of the crude metal pillars on the platform, pushing myself into the rivet of a pillar to hide, but they had recently been painted and tarted up for the Grand Old Party delegates. As it is, my eyesight is poor and I walked straight into her line of sight. Tired, lightheaded from beer and the profound need to hit the hay, I was defeated. There was to be no escaping her tonight.

“David, David. Over here. You afraid? I’m not going to rape your ass. Sit down.”

This was pure Estelle. David is not my name. Never has been never will be. Some figment of an alcoholic’s altered mind. Some implanted memory chip that is sparked with the ingredients of half a dozen Long Island ice teas. I took the bench seat next to her. This was going to be a long trip on the local train home. 34 Street Penn Station all the way up to 175th street. 17 stops. And I knew she was going further, up to the next stop, 181st so that she could catch a few more rounds of petrol flavored happiness in Jesse’s Place. Incidentally, also may preferred watering hole.

“You’re not going to believe what happened to me today?” No respite, she launched into her story with little encouragement. I was already sure that it was going to involve a misunderstanding of some sort at a bar. By the proof on her breath, I could tell what was coming.

“There was this dumb ass Puerto Rican at the bar, you know the one? Here in Penn Station. You’re not interested, no matter, you afraid of me?”

Indicating I was interested, I leant back. The train had yet to arrive; I started reading billboards and counting tiles. It was like that. It had come to this. I was counting tiles. She continued: “He was being a jerk. I told the bartender over and over. They know me there. I go there a bit. You are innocent aren’t you? I’m going to adopt you whether you like it or not. Anyway, I told the bartender to call the cops; this guy was a jerk. He thought he knew everything; Of course the bartender wasn’t going to call the cops. So I went.”

I was catching these snippets of information. What the hell was she chattering on about? I had heard of her famed blackouts and memory loss. If she remembered this event, perhaps it would help her to be more demure in the future. No, this one is a repeat offender. Alone and at 58 years the only way she is getting out of this rut is to find God or the casket and one may lead to the other – sort of two way street.

“So I dialed 311 not 911. This was important but not an emergency. Anyway, just like that there were 20 cops all around. Of course they didn’t arrest the guy, that dumb ass Puerto Rican, they just had a conversation. Man, I told them I was sorry for bothering them, I know they got to check out all calls, but he was a know-it-all and he was wrong.”

Estelle had managed to telephone the police a few days shy of the Republican Convention, literally from the seat of the Convention, over an argument in the bar. No wonder the cops swept down on the place. We are in an amber alert period and those guys have trigger fingers that are twitching. How else are they going to apprehend anyone, half of them look as if they could wrestle a whale and come out victorious?

“Just cuz we’ve talked here doesn’t mean we got to hang out now. Anyhow, I talked but you wasn’t interested.”

Absolute relief must have been clearly visible on my face. Thank god. Pray for a busy train. Pray for a busy train, and then I can escape down the carriage to an Estelle free standing space. What was her deal anyway? This was the second time I had heard or seen her beating on a Puerto Rican. She verbally abused a Puertoriqueno in Jesse’s Place a few days ago for no reason, other than to start a confrontation. Somehow I was in the middle of that one too, although, fortunately there were no cops involved. Hacking him down showing very little respect and then carefully placing some derogatory throwaway comments about the Cubans into the mix. This is not the era or the place to do such a thing. We are in Washington Heights, bordering with Inwood; everyone up here is Latino, Jewish, jobbing actors or struggling writers. You throw an insult out there about the Cubans and you will be frowned upon. Put one out there about the Dominicans and you will get a beating, and any wrong word uttered of the Salvadorians and you may as well kiss this world goodbye. Be thankful we are west of Broadway.

Here came the train. Mercifully busy. Nice. We had hit the window of opportunity. Like the space shuttle that can only take off and land coming through the Earth’s atmosphere at specific times there are unwritten rules for New York subway travel. This subway window of opportunity was one purely of security. For this is the train which all the busboys, waiters and kitchen staff take home. This is a safe train – people just going about their business and trying to get back to families and loved ones. There is a familiarity on this train, a camaraderie between citizens and aspiring citizens. Residents all. Pretty much completely filled with Central Americans, Dominicans and Mexicans, there is no threat. No undercurrent of menace that can overwhelmingly consume a later train. Any earlier and you get the express train and none of these situations. But it also means that you are going home too early. This is the city that never sleeps. At this time and later it is the 8th Avenue local, stopping all the way through Harlem. Take the later train and you will be with another crowd altogether. A Harlem crowd of ne’er do wells and trouble.

A friend in the City once told me: “Yes the train runs all night, but that doesn’t mean you should take it all night.” Learned words indeed.

I took my place. Standing far enough away from Estelle to not be rude, but to maintain the image that it was amply crowded and I was making my own space. And one stop later to my dismay, 42nd Street Port Authority, and the multitudes disembarked. Possibly they were transferring to the 7 train to Queens to the Mundo Latino that thrives up over there. Should you want anything from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala or Puerto Rico you would be hard pushed not to find it over there.

“David, come and sit down here.” Estelle was waving and motioning to the seat beside her. I noticed an empty space opposite. How could I pull it that I wanted to sit there? As I negotiated the undulations of the train on the track I reluctantly moved over. 16 more stops and no respite. She was just being kindly. I don’t know if I can take it though. I made for the gap opposite but was too slow. A couple slid in before me. I took my place beside Estelle. Perhaps this was better after all. I could look out and not have to make eye contact or real conversation. Just make the appropriate sounds of acknowledgement when I hear her pause for effect.

“Donde eres? Eres Dominicano? De que parte? Santiago. Soy de aqui pero mis padres fueron de la capital, Santo Domingo.”

She had made another friend. This was going to okay after all. Another person to keep the spotlight away from me. Another soul from the Dominican Republic, Ariel. Good natured and well-meaning he listened attentively to her tale of woe with the police in the bar at Penn Station. I could tell that he hadn’t missed her 100 per cent proof breath either. But, he struck a kindly face and returned conversation. Unlike me, Ariel chatted back to her. This was heartwarming. He had seen her straight off for what she is. A lonely soul. Her daughter has moved away. Her husband gone. “I divorced his black ass.” Ariel spoke of his young family and how his children were born here and so in effect he had already succeeded and subsequently his children had won. They were gringos, but the “good kind, gringos Latinos.”

“You afraid of something?” my silence and period of quiet had not gone unnoticed. I had been listening to Ariel’s story in part thankful that we had moved off Estelle’s tale of bar room disagreements and in part because it was a heartwarming reflection of the state of things. Here is the Promised Land. “A job if you are prepared to work. You can send money to your family back home. They can live well. You feel in your heart you are doing the right thing. You save the money to go and visit back home every other year, and your kids are getting the attention and education that you can only wish for.”

“If anyone tries to get in your way, I’ll fight them for you.” This was all I needed, Estelle watching my back, but really, spoiling for a fight. “I’ve adopted your ass; you have no say in it. Going to protect you and then sexually abuse you.” This provoked the reaction in me that she was looking for. Smart cookie this one. “Aha, not going to abuse you, just wanted to see your face. You are scared, who you want me to get?” She looked over at some suspects. I was spent; the last thing I need was this. Please don’t let her start on anyone here.

All this time I kept my eyes on the advertising banners up above the windows. Aprenda ingles and a legal notices, Todos los Accidentes, no cobramos si no ganamos. Colleges, law firms, medical associations, every organization had a banner up in Spanish somewhere on the subway lines. Looking at the advertisements would not keep her at bay.

“How much did those sneakers cost?” No pause for my response. “A hundred dollars? They are really clean; they look like a hundred bucks. Who would spend that much on a pair of sneakers?” There was no chance for me to reply, she had finished with me and was lecturing Ariel on something. Her back was to me. This was fine. Let her believe it.

Central Park and Morningside Heights, Harlem and then up to Washington Heights. Finally, I was home. At least, I was close to home. How to make my farewell without insulting her. The last thing I needed was to be another individual on her hit list. How did Kissinger put it? Surrender with dignity. This was an escape at all costs, but delicately done. I had seen her treatment of others in Jesse’s Place. I didn’t need that. Another place where I would have to peer through the windows before entering to make sure that it was free of people whose feathers I had ruffled. It was my local. I needed that place. Often it became a place for me to reestablish human contact after days in the concrete desert or seated at the laptop.

“Okay, goodnight. Nice to meet you Ariel, you take care. Estelle, farewell.” Polite, sure. Etiquette, certainly. Free, never.

“You not coming to Jesse’s Place?”

And that was the problem. I wanted more than anything to have a last drink there. A nightcap or whatever you call it. One last drink to wash away the train journey. The grime, grit and unforgiving air conditioning of New York’s subway system. This scared me; I needed more than anything that next and last drink. I had been thinking about it on the train. It would clear my head and help me sleep. It would reconnect me to my people there, friends and night people. Every night in there turned out as an adventure of sorts. Accosted by neurotic single women with too much Sex in the City on their minds. Corrupted in thought and action by a TV show. Lectured by barflies as soon as they learn your profession. There is no person wiser than the barfly. Leaning in to you to whisper and then announce to the whole bar their view on your chosen path in life. Experts on everything, reticent on nothing. They have the knowledge. Young or old they claim to have seen and experienced it all.

But tonight, I was not going to go. Let Estelle go alone. Let her take her place at the bar. The one in the near corner underneath that television. That was Estelle’s place. Woe to all who sat there and did not give it up to her on her arrival. The unforgiving wrath of Estelle. Let her go to the bar and make some such story about the train ride.

“Not tonight Estelle. I am tired; it is time for me to turn in. See you around.”

And that, I thought would be the end of it all. For certain I would see he in the bar again in the bar. Although, I would be the one in better shape. She could drivel her way into another patron’s ear.

But, inevitably I saw her again, this time a few days later in the safe house of Jesse’s Place. Wedged by the wall, oblivious to the light beaming out from the television set above her head, I guess it gave her the impression that people noticed her and were acknowledging her as they stared open mouthed up at whatever moving picture monopolized the screen. It could be the Yankees, another interminable Olympic swimming heat or just the ordinary blather of reality shows. People grasping at their chance for fleeting fame and cash, spurred on by a public that sees themselves in the characters – the plight of the everyday joe. In fact, Estelle was being ignored, this night and every night. She had for so long terrorized the bar and the clientele that people remained courteous so as not to incur the ire, and then kept their conversations out of earshot, lest she hear and decide to opine on something or other.

Tonight she had been drinking for some time. It was a Saturday night; there had been no stops on her abilities or her credit limit. No job to keep her sober for at least until lunchtime. Long island ice teas were flowing through her veins and her anger was directed towards a guy in his mid-twenties accompanied by three women. Estelle saw her chance.

“Why you with him? Whatever he tells you its all lies. Why you all with that sorry guy?”

To their credit, the group remained quiet and continued to seemingly enjoy one another’s company. Estelle could be heard above the din at the bar. The bartender looked on, the owner looked on, nothing really they could do. Estelle is a regular and a regular spender.

Finally one of the girls comes over: “What’s the deal, what’s the problem with my friend?”

“Three girls and one guy, whatever he says, I don’t know him, but all men lie, and he’s no different. Why you with him?”

Estelle had been ranting and bitching for some while. Maybe due to the fact that she felt ignored, she needed to up the ante and raise her voice. She would not be felled or sidelined. The girl had had enough too and played her card.

“He has an enormous cock,” she said emphasizing the fact with her hands and leaving a space of air between both palms that could have been a couple of feet. Estelle was undeterred and unimpressed and hardly was there time for a breath from the moment the girl had finished her revelation to when she uttered immortal words.

“Well he doesn’t use it on girls.”

It came as no surprise when the bar staff at Jesse’s Place confided in me why they permitted her back time and time again. Her husband had long since divorced her, her daughter gown up and moved away. Estelle was a lonely elderly alcoholic waiting to pass on. She blacked out after drinking sessions and it is within such periods that her outbursts sprung forth. I wanted to feel sorry, I wanted to try and be a friend.

But the best thing I felt a friend could do was to leave her to her devices.


About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
This entry was posted in Journalism, Journeys and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.