One Saturday night, my father gave me fifty cents to buy the Sunday New York Times. The Times was part of my family’s weekly ritual. Already, at age sixteen, I was bitter about this paper, because I had been born with a love of comics — every type of comic: Batman, comic strips, MAD Magazine. Yet each week, the gray Sunday Times arrived, thick with facts and want ads. Only Al Hirschfield’s caricatures of Broadway plays, in which he hid his daughter’s name, Nina, in certain spots, were amusing. As I searched for Ninas, I mourned all the real comic strips — “Dondi,” “Peanuts,” “Mary Worth,” “Smokey Stover” — that appeared weekly in the Daily News.
My family lived in Inwood, at the narrow, northernmost tip of Manhattan, surrounded by the Bronx. It was in Inwood that Peter Minuit had purchased Manhattan from the Algonquins for a chest of jewelry now worth $180 — a plaque marks the site — but since then, the area had receded from public interest. Inwood Park was a large, wild tract where Indians had lived in caves in the 1920s and sections of virgin forest still persisted. Our neighborhood was made up of six-story buildings and quaint shops — Old Dutch Cleaners, Bill’s Hardware, Joe and Al’s Meat Market — whose owners set out American flags on the sidewalk on holidays. Inwood was like a little town. True, Times Square was only thirty-five minutes south on the IRT subway, but we rarely took this ride.
I took my father’s fifty cents and stepped out the door onto Payson Avenue. It was a balmy May night. Across the street, Inwood Park exuded a scant perfume of leaves. I walked down to Broadway, where I called Marvin Kleinstein from a pay phone. Marvin was a tall, comical Jewish teenager with thick black hair and glasses. He and I were best friends (although we never said so) drawn together by our common interests: the Fugs, the Mothers of Invention, marijuana, girls, and “seeing God,” as Marvin put it.
Marvin’s mother answered the phone: “Hello, who is this?”
“Michael Gorelick,” I said.
She sighed, then shouted, “Marvin!” Mrs. Kleinstein disliked me. She suspected I was a heroin addict because I wore turtleneck shirts.
“How’s it going?” Marvin asked.
“Fine. I’m just out buying the paper for my parents.”
“Do you want to take a walk?”
This meant Marvin had pot.
“Sure,” I said.
“Meet me at the 231st Street subway in twenty minutes.”
We hung up, and I took the 100 bus up Broadway, past empty sidewalks and darkened pharmacies. South of 207th Street, I saw the lights of McCall’s Bar, where Irish bands played on Saturday night — the only night life in Inwood.
Marvin was waiting for me beneath the elevated train tracks. “Would you like some mari-hoochy?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. Marvin delighted in playful names for pot.
“I only have one joint.”
“That’s fine,” I said, although one joint of the weak Bronx pot we smoked was pretty meager.
We began walking into Van Cortlandt Park, a grim, murky plain reminiscent of a moor in a Sherlock Holmes movie.
“So, what are you up to tonight?” I asked.
“Just sitting around with my tremendously annoying mother. My brother’s out. I’ve been listening to King Kong. Do you know King Kong?”
“You played it for me once.”
“So I’ve been listening to King Kong. On headphones. . . . Where should we go?”
In the distance, we saw two seated female figures. Consensually, we headed over toward them. They turned out to be teenage girls with shoulder-length hair. One had freckles. They were drinking beer.
Marvin pulled out the joint and asked politely, “Would you ladies care to smoke some marijuana?”
“Sure.” They laughed and gestured for us to sit.
They offered us beer, but we declined. (True hippies, we believed, didn’t drink.) Marvin ceremoniously lit the hand-rolled cigarette, inhaled, and passed the joint to the unfreckled girl. She inhaled and did not cough. We were impressed: although she was a Bronx Irish Catholic girl whose father drove a bus, she had smoked the Herb of Wisdom.
She passed the pot to me and smiled. We continued handing the joint around without speaking, the four of us forming a small circle within the billowing darkness of the moor. The joint became a roach, then was gone.
Now we were stoned. Time unwound, and a sparkliness touched the air. I began to talk to the freckled girl. We spoke of our homes. She pointed east toward her apartment beyond the hills. I mentioned Inwood. Everything we said was sultry and ironic, from the marijuana.
Suddenly, we were kissing. Her face, I noticed, had become vast — as wide as Van Cortlandt Park. She lay down on the grass beneath me. What a tender, vast girl!
“We should go,” Marvin remarked.
He was not kissing the unfreckled girl.
Marvin and I stood and awkwardly bid the girls goodbye forever. We walked back across the field, toward Broadway.
“That was exciting,” I mused.
“You were really going!” Marvin said enviously.
I had never done that before: kissed a girl I didn’t know.
Marvin walked with me to the bus stop and waved as I stepped on. I rode back down quiet Broadway, across the bridge into Manhattan. At Dyckman Street, I got off and bought the Sunday Times.
“Good work!” my father called when he saw the Times. Anxiously, he flipped through the paper to see if a section was missing.