Billy’s Topless


One night in the mid-90s, I walked into an ATM on 23rd and 6th Avenue where a man was sprawled out on the floor. It was two in the morning. His wallet was flipped open a few feet away from his open hand. He was looking up at the ceiling and seemed okay aside from the obvious. He was probably mid-50s.

Which is to say, you know, he was the age I am now. So remembering this NOW … I have a different perspective. Different from when I was snide, young dude.

Those harsh, clinical fluorescents seemed extra bright somehow in the middle of the night.

I had seen him, the guy on the floor, earlier at Billy’s Topless a few blocks away. He was at the bar talking to one of the dancers and looking very desperate.

I didn’t go to strip clubs much, but my friend Alex got me hooked on Billy’s. Whoever picked the dancers had a real eye for types that perfectly matched a fantasy you didn’t even know you had.

I didn’t notice this right away. Alex drug me there under protest, and I was overwhelmed and distracted for the first beer. You have to get yourself acclimated to sitting on a bar stool looking at tits.

But then I heard Alex say, “Ah, there she is.” This languid girl with very long, very thick hair was slipping out of her robe and stepping on stage. She didn’t dance as much as she flowed like mercury with complete disregard for the music. Her tits were nice when they peeked out through the long hair. She was pretty. Sure. Naked girl, you know. But why the hell was Alex so mesmerized? He looked like he was remembering his first Christmas.

But watching her was giving me a funny feeling too, more than just the wood I was springing. Then … click! … I could totally see what he saw. She was a perfect type of something I couldn’t put my finger on. Something right out of the very first throb of puberty when you start noticing the boobs in comic books. Back when you got that first funny feeling looking at the bra page in the Sears catalogue.

And … then … boom … it was my first Christmas too.

I went through the same thing every time at Billy’s. The click. This night the dancer on the far end wasn’t doing it for me. She just looked scrawny. But half-way through my beer, the lights … the lights on the girls and the little white Xmas tree lights running along the stage … they looked a little warmer and I really SAW her, with her long, long torso and tiny breasts. She had a pout, and her black hair fell over her eyes. Yeah. And she just sort of twisted there in the warm light. Eyes closed.

For a second or two there, I really wanted her, more than you’re supposed to want a stripper. Whenever you’re thinking you’re going to try to get a stripper’s number, that she’ll see you as more than just another slimy guy in a strip bar, you’ve lost it.

This guy who wound up on the ATM floor had lost it. His girl was the perfect cutie-type. She had short blond hair, a very round face and big blue eyes. Big melon boobs. She’d wind up chunky. This guy was all over her. She was smiling a grimace-like smile, and I got the impression she was angling for some backroom business. But I got all this in a quick flash then looked back at the dancers.

Later in the ATM, I had to step over his legs to get to the machine.

“Here I am,” he said.

I pretended he wasn’t there. Of course.

“Not going anywhere,” he said a moment later while I was getting my cash.

I was pushing the bar on the door to go out when he shouted: “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?”

Some Good Samaritan impulse finally kicked in.

“You okay, buddy?” I asked.

“Not going anywhere!” he shouted at the ceiling again.

A young couple came bustling in and stepped over his legs. I offered my hand. He took it and sat up.

“Oh, well. Not gonna happen. Not gonna happen. Why not? Why not?”

I snatched up his wallet and offered it to him, but he just stared off into space.

“Is he okay?” the girl asked. I shrugged. The couple banged out.

“I just wanted him to know I wasn’t fighting him. Wasn’t trying to pretend I didn’t deserve the worst he could do.”

I offered my hand again, and he got on his feet. He wandered over to the window, buried his hands in his pockets and looked out at the night. It was like he was on a deck looking out at the sea.

“I wasn’t disputing his judgment.”

“Let me put you in a cab.”

A little robotic, hands still in his pockets, he walked past me and out the door then stopped. I followed him out. And we stood there on 23rd, again, like on the deck of ship.

“You know, I wasn’t expecting actual lightning. Just something bad. I just thought I’d help him get it over with.”

I found his driver’s license in the wallet. He still didn’t give a shit that I had it. An address in Brooklyn, which was still like going to Mars back then. I put him in the back seat of a taxi. I was about to slam the door, but it hit me I should make sure he got home.

Also … truth be told … I didn’t want to go home myself. I got into a divorce-grade fight with my wife earlier. I didn’t actually say “divorce” but I shouted, “Okay, that’s it!”

“What do you mean ‘that’s it’?”

“It means that’s it!”

And I walked out.

I had a lot of bottled-up rage. I had a shitty temporary job at a hotel downtown. I wore a suit and told people where to find the bar or the concierge desk. I didn’t know what else I was going to do with my life, but I wanted to do something. But they offered me a permanent job right when Jenny lost her job.

She had the approximation of a real job setting up window displays. She thought of it as a real job, so she took getting fired as a blow instead of an excuse to collect unemployment. My gut told me she was depressed way out of proportion, but I played the hero and took the hotel job.

Then it sucked even more. When I was a temp, they knew and I knew I could just stop showing up. There was no carrot and no stick. Once I was hired I had to start dealing with all the real job bullshit. “I thought you already took your break. Golly, I know there’s no one around, but we’d prefer that you not sit. Are you growing a beard?”

Then I walk in one night and the sink is full of dishes like always. The TV’s on. And she says, “You think we should talk about having kids?”

The cork just came out of the bottle. She’d just decided I’d work at this miserable hotel forever while she sat around letting the dishes pile up while some baby squirms around on the floor. She didn’t think I’d ever do any better than this! Suddenly I was 100% convinced that she was a totally selfish bitch out to ruin my life.

I looked around at the stupid cliché Matisse prints and the throw pillows and just had to escape. And I wasn’t sure I was coming back. But I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I said, “What the hell” and got into the cab with this guy.

We rode in silence for a bit, then he took out a cigarette. Remember this was back in the 90s. He met eyes with the driver in the rearview. The driver nodded, and the man lit up. So did I.

“You can’t live without sex.” He started up like we’d been hanging out talking all night and was just picking up the thread.

“It’s like food and water except sex deprivation doesn’t kill you as fast. Jerking off doesn’t count. The body knows. They’ve done studies. Sperm count goes up when there’s another body present. A partner. A mate. Whatever.”

He stopped talking for a block or so, then muttered, “Little whore.” Then he started up again:

“Yes, they’ve done studies. But, of course, they’ve done studies on everything. Little whore.”

He was quiet again, taking deep drags. Then after two blocks:

“I KNEW she was a little whore. I think she thought I didn’t know I’d have to pay her. I just wanted her to let me keep the dream going. Without the dream, it’d just be jerking off. And, as we discussed, jerking off doesn’t count.”

He was silent again as we reached Houston. I was trying to think of something, anything, to say, but was really afraid of getting trapped more than I already was. But about now I mostly just wanted to say, “Get over it!”

“There wasn’t even a proper bedroom. It was an office at the top of these stairs. She had to kick someone out of there. Another dancer. They had a little argument. She pushed the door closed on me, but I heard her practically scream ‘Come on! I gotta blow this guy.’ And then once it was happening it wouldn’t work. My big worry going into it was that it wouldn’t last long enough for my money. I was so excited. But turns out I really made her work.”

Another long pause. I was sure now I wasn’t going to make a squeak. I just wanted him to shut the fuck up. Last thing I wanted to do was prompt him.

I lit another cigarette.

“Finally, I was just numb. And I’d lost all trace of the dream. So I just go, ‘Please, just step back and just let me look at you.’ She looked a little worried until I threw more money on the desk. It wasn’t how I wanted it to happen, but it worked. Technically. But it didn’t count.”

He started making a gurgling sound. Then a choking sound. Then he leaned over and burst into tears.

“Oh God, strike me down! I don’t deserve to live! Strike me down!”

“Hey! Listen! Give yourself a break. Jeez, man, it’s not a big deal.”

He just sniffed and sort of gurgled in the dark for a minute. Then lit another cigarette.

“My wife was a healthy farm-girl type from Maine.” He sounded normal again. What’s the word I’m thinking of? Patrician. “I mean, she was right out of a postcard from Maine. A milk maid, you know. Blonde-blonde hair in a sort of bob. Blue-blue eyes. And, to be honest, a great big, luscious pair of tits. Oh my God. And I get on the subway one morning and there she is. I mean, it wasn’t my wife, but it was. It was my wife when I first met her.

“This was in the morning when the F train comes up above ground at 4th Avenue. So the sun was shining in, blazing up that blonde hair. It was like a divine light. Truly, a light shining down from God above. And I thought God was speaking to me, saying, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ve sent her to you.’ I was flooded with peace.

“Not that I thought God wanted me to do something. But it was okay to want this young girl on the train. It was okay. Because this was my wife. Jesus said if your eye causes you to lust, it’s better to pluck it out than be thrown in hell with two good eyes. But this was my wife there on the F train. So it wasn’t lust.”

We were finally turning onto the bridge but there was serious gridlock. The driver shouted out of his window to another cab, “What the hell?”

“Brooklyn Bridge is closed, mon.”



My “friend” started laughing.

“Ha, ha, suddenly I realize she’s smiling at me. Eye contact! I mean, ha, ha, ha … I knew, ha, I knew she wasn’t really my wife. I knew it was just a girl on the subway. But, I’m telling you, this moment of complete and total lucidity hit me. An attractive young woman on the train was flirting with me. With ME! And, you know how it is. I mean, I don’t know how it is with a young guy like you, but I think most men are like me. We’re just not … we’re not present. So we don’t know that what’s happening is really happening. Hours later you realize the girl in the store didn’t really need help reaching the box on the top shelf. But this time I knew. I knew. And it was like grabbing hold of the reigns. Taking control.

“I stood up. I crossed over to her bench and sat down. I knew my … my … my role. Experienced older man.

“I started a conversation about the book she was holding … Pride and … no, Sense and Sensibility. We chatted for stop after stop. It was flowing smooth and effortless.

“Then, just as relaxed and naturally as you can imagine, I heard myself say that I was planning on having dinner that evening at this lovely place on 13th Street. ‘Oh, my stop’s coming up,’ she says. I asked if she’d like to join me. And she smiles this huge, huge smile and goes, ‘I’ll think about it.’ And, listen, she writes her number on a blank page in the back of her book, rips it out and hands it to me just as the doors are opening. And she zips out.

“For two or three stops I just sat there in a state of euphoria. Then I thought of my wife. My actual wife at home.

“Strike me down! Strike me down! Strike me down!”

Traffic had started to move, and we were zooming across the bridge.

“I tried to throw away her phone number. That little shred of paper. I tried a hundred times, but I just kept thinking … I kept thinking …”

He thumped his cigarette out of the window. Unknown Brooklyn peeped at me through the girders of the bridge. We got all the way across and joined more gridlock on Flatbush.

It was very quiet over on his side. I thought he might finally be passing out.

“I kept thinking I could fuck her.”

That word had never sounded so nasty to me. Because he meant it that way. He sort of slurred it and snarled it at the same time. Making the word sound as ugly and dehumanizing as he wanted it be. Making the word sound like the act itself, that is, like it would be for them, an old lech on top of some sweet, young thing.

“I kept thinking I could fuck her.”

“Sure … sure … all the little reasons it probably couldn’t happen were there. I’m a lot older. Is she that type of girl? Whatever. My own hang-ups. But I kept thinking it could happen. I kept fingering that shred of paper and thinking about fucking her. Those massive tits. Mmmm. Yeah.

“And I’m walking down … stumbling down 8th Avenue and finally I just leap at this pay phone. I punch the numbers like I’m trying to push my fingers through the phone. And what do I hear? Those tones … do-do-do … ‘We’re sorry, the number you are calling has been disconnected or is no longer in service.’

“I dialed again. ‘We’re sorry, the number you’re calling …’

“Again. ‘We’re sorry.’ FUCK YOU WE’RE SORRY! FUCK YOU!”

He punched the seat.

The driver shouted: “HEY, ASSHOLE!”

“I’M SORRY. I do apologize.”






My friend lit another cigarette.

“I was lost. I knew I was totally lost.”

He actually sounded sober and lucid.

“I’d known for years that the situation was putting me under enormous stress. But I kept everything inside. I was the quiet man on the train. The anonymous gentleman sipping coffee at the counter in the Chock Full of Nuts. But here I was wailing to the sky on 8th Avenue. Everyone shuffling past.”

Traffic started moving. The driver was tossing us around as he shifted from lane to lane.

“Once you see your own wretchedness … no way to unsee it.”

We passed Junior’s. A couple of lights not working in the neon “Cocktails” sign. I’d come out here with my wife maybe a year before. A birthday party. It was supposed to be somehow funny, a birthday gathering at Junior’s. Ironic or whatever. Again, remember this was the 90s. Irony was still new. But the whole thing was just dull. Her dull friends droned on and on about other dull friends who weren’t there. As far as I could tell I was just eating a hamburger at some diner instead of participating in an ironic happening.

I used to be jealous of these people who went to the chi-chi schools. Yale, like my wife. But then the years start passing and the cutesy undergrad in-jokes, Proust-this, Roz Chast-that, it all gets thin and desperate. And then they drag you all the way to fucking Brooklyn to be ironic in Junior’s. That was the 90s.

We drove for a while in silence. We turned off Flatbush into the mysterious non-Manhattan urban-ness. A crowded chicken joint. A skeevie-looking club with a velvet rope. Guys sitting on plastic buckets. Then incongruously nice brownstones.

“She showed me her pussy. I gave her some more money. Totally shaved. Mmmmm. That’s what did it. Yeah. God, it was so beautiful. She reached down and pulled those–”

“SHUT UP! SHUT UP! Disgusting fuck! Damn.”

We were now deep in one of those Brooklyn neighborhoods – trees, stoops, brownstones. I had no idea where the fuck we were. I leaned up to the plexiglass.

“How far are we from this address?”

“Ten minutes.”

Ten minutes. I was really annoyed with myself. You never engage these people. These crazies. Just walk away. Leave them to the night. And the oldest trick in the book is you think you’re dealing with some regular Joe who’s just overwrought or has had too much to drink. But this is never the case. They’re always fruitcakes.

The cab was thick with smoke mixed with his drunk-guy-who-maybe-pissed-himself aroma. I was just disgusted.

I reasoned with myself that I could just stick it out until we reached his place. Then I could dump him on the curb.

He was curled up on his side and blubbering into his hands. Boo-hooing. He was saying something. Repeating it.

We turned, went a few blocks, turned. More fucking stoops. More fucking trees.

“I don’t wanna …” something he was repeating. “Don’t wanna … don’t wanna … don’t wanna go home. Don’t wanna go.”

“Then where the fuck you want to go, asshole? Where? Where? Huh? You think you’re a fucking saint? What? What? Let me tell you, I have a wife back at my house. But if I could part with 50 bucks, I’d go out and buy myself a blow job or whatever 50 bucks could get me from a chick that didn’t look like a crack-whore ghoul and you know what? I’d skip home. I’D SKIP! I wouldn’t feel a twinge of guilt. Not a twinge. You know why not? Cause marriage is hell. And whatever happiness I can come by is 100% okay. It’s all shit. How can you be your age and not know that? Damn!”

Stony silence.

We reached a neighborhood with dinkier looking row houses. No brownstones. Absurdly tiny yards.

“Where you wanna stop?” the driver asked.

“Hold on,” I said, searching for his license. I still had his wallet.

“To the right,” the man said in this super calm voice. “Just past the dumpster.”

He jumped out as I was paying the driver. Out of this guy’s wallet, of course. All of a sudden I hear this shouting.

Outside of the cab, the man was on his knees with his fists to the sky: “DON’T FORGIVE ME! STOP FORGIVING ME! KILL ME! STRIKE ME DOWN!”

A woman in a nursing uniform burst out of the house. I was trying to pull him to his feet at least.

“Oh my God, Mr. Lexington,” she said reaching for his arm. “You can’t DO this!” She pulled him out of my grip hurrying to get him inside.

I followed them but wasn’t sure why. It seemed to me that maybe this woman or whoever should know about the ATM situation.

I felt a little like I had walked into the Bunker’s house from “All in the Family.” Just because it was a small, old house with a sad, little living room. Everything kind of beige. Books and magazines stacked high on a closed piano. Orange plastic flowers on a round table covered with clear plastic. A cabbagey smell fighting with the Lysol.

And there was a rolling oxygen tank in the middle of the rug.

The woman in the nurse outfit was raking the man over the coals in whispers. She was red in the face. Her chin was jutting, and she was jutting her finger toward the hall saying something something something “your wife” something something something “your poor wife” something something.

A harsh cough came from down the hall. They stopped whispering.

The nurse made that talk-to-the-hand gesture and spoke full voice:

“Mr. Lexington, you really, really, really just can’t DO this! My mother had to drive over and put my kids to bed.”

“I’m very sorry,” he sighed.

“You KNOW you have to call Sandra if you wanna stay out late.”

“I know. I’m very, very, very sorry.”

There was more coughing and the man hurried down the hall.

How do you like that? Didn’t even thank me.

The woman put on her coat and grabbed her bag. She saw me toss the man’s wallet on a cluttered table. She slipped out some bills then left without saying a word to me. I suppose she thought I was his drinking buddy. A bad influence.

It then struck me how odd it was to be here alone at 3am in a strange house in darkest Brooklyn. I just stood there. For a long moment, everything was dead quiet except for some sort of whirring sound outside. Like rattles. An idling truck maybe.

The shelves next to me were lined with photos in frames. This regular-looking couple were doing all the usual things people do in photos – standing on beaches, standing by lakes, standing by mountains, celebrating a birthday with friends around a table at a restaurant, standing under the Eiffel Tower. But my “friend” was much younger in all the photos. The styles were early 80s. He had more hair, parted in the middle and swooping down over his ears into what you figured was an almost mullet. The woman looked kind of like Pat Benetar, with helmet hair.

Then more coughing erupted down the hall. It was a long jag. I could hear his voice rumbling sympathetically whatever he was saying.

Outside the cicadas were buzzing like crazy. I hadn’t noticed before because of the guy’s shouting.

I picked a direction. After walking what felt like a mile with this maddening buzzing all around me, I came to an avenue.

No taxies in sight. The guy in the bodega told me the F train was eight blocks that way, but I lucked out and saw a cab finally. The driver’s reggae thankfully shut out the goddamn cicadas.

“Where we going?”

“Not sure,” I said. I yawned. “Just head back to Manhattan.”

Crossing the bridge, I looked out at Manhattan and thought about how the whole city was just lying there waiting for me.

This couldn’t be what it all came down to, standing all day at a Ritz Carlton telling tourists which way it was to the restaurant, how to buy tickets for “Phantom.” But I wasn’t going to figure it all out now. So I gave the driver my address uptown.

I yawned again and leaned back.

A picture of that skinny stripper popped into my head. She just looked like she’d be cool to hang out with in a coffee shop. Would be nice to be with someone without baggage or pressure or politics. No history. Just imagine. You both share this unspoken understanding to stay out of each other’s shit. Just keeping each other company. Maybe you fuck. Maybe you don’t. Not as important as staying out of each other’s psyche. Not fucking with each other. Anything to keep from turning into what I just saw. Life is just too damn short. We could drive upstate. One of those cabins near Margaretville. See deer outside the window. Tons of deer crowding each other. Shoulder to shoulder. Antler to antler. Singing beautiful music like that Bulgarian women’s choir. All the deer singing like dark, tragic angels.

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