I didn’t need to go all the way to New York to study music production. I could have done it at home. But I needed to get away from the choirboy reactionaries I’d studied alongside back in London. Who knew who I could become if I could just be free, I thought. What could I create? So I went.
I packed as little as possible, knowing that I would reinvent myself on arrival. No, I shouldn’t reduce it to reinvention. It was more than that. It was more about unearthing the person I knew I already was. This move across the ocean was about carving a fully formed human from the broken pieces of another.
But after my first two terms at Columbia University, I still hadn’t recorded anything significant or met the type of musicians I craved to work with. I updated my Instagram account daily but my follower count remained at a number below negligible. No one contacted me to record.
The cocoon remained firmly intact, my wings only daring to spread after my lonely liquid lunches at The Dead Poet, where I ended most of my days. It was a bit of a strut from the campus, but I’d gotten to know the Irish girls there and they had a way of making me feel at home. They’d keep my glass full and never mentioned anything about the poor tips I left. Someone told me once that the more you drink at a bar, the less you’re expected to tip. So I worked hard at becoming a regular.
I’d sit alone with an eight-dollar beer and notepad, my mind jumping from one topic to the next. How could I find musicians to work with? Or, better yet, how could I position myself as a producer that musicians would be drawn to? I was foreign, perhaps that could work. I could exaggerate my connections back in London. Then my mind would flip and I’d wonder how Sharon and all her Guinness-pouring colleagues got the paperwork to be working in the pub. I’d always imagined the Irish bars of New York to be filled with fifth-generation Irish, but it was clear they were all filled with lasses straight off the boat. And then another topic. How dare my father question me when I’d told him I wanted to pursue a career in music. How dare he try to push me into a life of accounting.
On one particular visit, having just demolished my regular cheeseburger and six pints, I felt reality crowding in on me, confronting me with scenes from my failing life and career. What if my lack of progress was simply the result of my own mediocrity? What if I wasn’t mediocre back in London because of anyone else’s interference, but because I… No, I knew that wasn’t the case. I’d just been in the wrong place, surrounded by the wrong people. You’re in New York now, I told myself. You just need to get out there and be understood. To be seen for who you really are. I paid my bill, left the measly 50 cent tip per drink I always left Sharon, and strolled homeward via Hell’s Kitchen.
The sun blinded me and my mind continued to race. How could I make it all work? Where should I really be? What if they were all right?
Taking a mental break from my racing internal dialogue, I looked up and realised I’d accidentally found myself hemmed in on Times Square. The huge billboards and posts above me flashed like Christmas, burning my retinas even in the midday sun. Men with pot bellies wiggled into tattered Spiderman suits like old women climbing into girdles.
It had never impressed me. None of it. Not even on my very first visit. I’d imagined I would be overcome by the energy of it all. That it would be a life-affirming moment, reassurance that I was finally in ‘my place’. But, instead, all I saw was the contrast between the desperate glitz that the city was trying to portray and the listlessness on everyone’s faces. The hotdog stall vendors. The fruit hawkers. The police. They may have believed in it all once, maybe not even all that long ago, but not anymore. I’d never seen anything that resembled pride or ambition in New York. All I’d seen was apathy and the aches and creaks of routine. Smoldering embers of shelved American dreams.
I lowered my head and walked hurriedly, as I always did when I found myself in these parts of the city. The last thing you want to do in Times Square is catch the eye of a Batman twat and have to fake a smile while sidestepping your way out of a ‘photo opportunity’. My mind drifted and I started to think back to home, to who I’d been back then, back there. The lack of change in me was scary. I was still that exact person, only now I was here.
And then, a nudge. A tap, tap, tap on my shoulder that snapped me back into reality once again.
“Hey, you could at least shake my hand, man. You in a hurry, hey?”
I stopped dead in my tracks and waited for my social skills to activate. I spent so much time alone that it took a few minutes for me to readjust to interaction from the outside.
“I’m sorry,” I said, as I reached out and shook the man’s hand, my British manners finally kicking into autopilot. “I didn’t hear you…”
He was a full head shorter than me, but his wide smile, a gleaming mouth of gold teeth, seemed brighter than anything I could ever dream of being.
“What’s your name, brother? Where you from?”
“I’m Derek, from London. But I live here now,” I said, noticing the drawings that covered every inch of his bare chest.
He gazed into my eyes, not letting go of my hand, saying nothing. One of his friends appeared from my periphery, patting me on the back with a palm that seemed to span from my left to right shoulder. More tattoos, more gold teeth. I’d only ever seen people that looked this way in music videos.
Another came over and bumped fists with me. I felt cool and worldly, proud that I knew how to carry myself. I wasn’t like those stiffs back home. They wouldn’t have had a clue how to act in a situation like this. But I did.
“Thanks for not treating me like a Londoner, Derek,” one of them said as he limped back into the thick of their crowd. It didn’t make sense, but I laughed politely in response. There were three or four more of them nearby, but they were busy on their phones or talking to other people. They still acknowledged me, though. It felt good. I felt connected to to the city. To them.
“We’re fighting racism,” said Smiler, gazing deeply into my eyes again. “Thank you for stopping to talk to us.”
“Not at all,” I said. “Of course!”
“We’re musicians. Rappers. This is us. This is our group.”
“Oh, cool… I’m a mus…”
“Here, take this, Derek,” Smiler said while writing on a CD with a black Sharpie and handing it to me. “You ain’t never heard hip-hop till you heard this.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said, genuinely flattered. I wanted to explain that I was a music producer. What a coincidence that we’d met like this? What perfect timing! This was it. This was my moment to connect. But before I had a chance to say a word, there were three of them around me, signing more CDs and shoving them into my hands. Maybe they could tell I worked in the biz.
“We ain’t sellin’ these, Derek,” Smiler explained. “We just tryna get our name up there,” he said as he pointed up at the only empty space left among the famous illuminated billboards.
I was confused. How would standing in Times Square giving out CDs help them get to that point? But maybe he saw something in me. They could see I could help, I figured. And I could help, couldn’t I? This was serendipity in motion. This was fate.
“No, we ain’t sellin’ these. We just askin’ for donations. Whatever you got to help the cause, my brother.”
I froze. Trickles of disappointment seeping into my thoughts and pushing out the joy I’d just been feeling. What was going on here? We’d connected, hadn’t we? They’d realised that I could help them, that I was in the music industry too. That’s why they’d stopped me to talk, wasn’t it?
But I reached for my wallet, more out of my innate deference than desire. “Of course,” I said, not wanting to offend. “Let me see what I’ve got here.” A dollar or two wouldn’t kill me. Then we could talk shop. “You know, I think we could work toget…”
But Smiler didn’t let me finish my sentence.
“You can give what you want but most people donate at least tweny bucks,” he said, his black and yellow eyes fixed on mine like vices.
One of the larger group members produced a fat roll of twenty dollar bills and flicked through them like a rolodex. Proof.
Well this is New York, I thought. Twenty dollars is nothing in this city. But, really? Who’s handing over twenties to strangers in the middle of the street? It was more than I’d ever given to anyone. Even my nieces only ever got a five pound note out of me at Christmas. Perhaps a tenner on their birthday if I didn’t have a fiver in my wallet.
I wanted to laugh, to tell Smiler about the crummy tips I always left at the shitty dive bars I drank at and the meagre meals I existed on. Even a five dollar bill would have been more than I could really afford to ‘donate’. But as I leafed through the crumpled notes in my wallet, Smiler saw a twenty dollar bill poking out.
“That’s it, you got it! You got it! Come on, you got it! That’s it!”
His smile was gone now, but his gold teeth filled his mouth so that he couldn’t close his lips. The tone was different, too. He wasn’t asking any more, he was instructing. Coercing.
The rest of the group slowly crowded around us, towering over me and Smiler. My options, as I saw it, were to either ignore the suggested donation of twenty dollars and donate five dollars to these gentlemen who were fighting against racism, or I could give them the twenty and get the hell out of there. It never crossed my mind that I could simply walk away and donate nothing, that there would be a hundred NYC cops within earshot should anything happen.
With eight or ten eye-balls burning deep into my soul, I took out the twenty and gave it to Smiler.
“That’s it! That’s it,” assured Smiler, his gold glistening again in the sun.
But there was no ‘thank you’, no farewell handshake. Instead, the group circled even closer, drawn in by the smell of blood. I could hear the rasp in their breaths and smell the sweet stink of the street in their synthetic clothes. I could feel the heat from their bodies. The hunger.
“Now give that guy there another tweny, Derek. He’s my boss. That guy right there. He splits up the donations between us. The same again, Derek, a tweny,” instructed Smiler.
“I can’t,” I said, my voice sounding like it did when I was eleven years old. “I’m sorry, but I don’t even have twenty dollars left.”
Smiler looked at me with disdain. Disgust, even.
“Then you take just one CD, Derek. Give us the others back,” Smiler said.
I held onto one of the CDs and handed back the others to Smiler and his colleagues, who snatched them without word and turned their backs on me. And then, as quickly as Smiler had appeared, the entire group dissolved into the bustle of Times Square as if they’d never been there.
I was overcome with a feeling of loneliness and confusion and started replaying the scene over and over in my head. It couldn’t have lasted more than 30 seconds. That big warm smile, the sincere handshake. I’d been so happy to meet them. “We’re trying to fight racism,” he’d said. The music. And then, just like that, the cold switch once I’d handed over the money. Twenty dollars? Twenty fucking dollars? I’d never given anyone twenty fucking dollars in my life. How fucking stupid could I be?
What a pathetic piece of shit you are Derek, I muttered to myself. You should have told them to go fuck themselves!
But, no. Wait a minute. No, you did the right thing. You never know in New York. They could have done anything. They could have had guns.
But, really, why me? Why did they pick me? Did I really come across as such a streak of piss? Was I really that pathetic looking? I thought they’d seen the musician in me, the producer. But all they’d seen was an easy target. Pray.
No, no, no… I was overreacting. They were just trying to get a headstart in life. Twenty dollars is nothing in this day and age, not in a city like New York. Oh, Jesus Christ. What a fucking idiot.
At least I hadn’t given them more when Smiler asked. But would I have done if I’d had another twenty in my wallet? No. There’s no way. I wasn’t that much of a sucker. No, I’d triumphed in this situation. I’d controlled it, seen right through them. They’re the ones who should feel bad about themselves.
I wanted to tell someone, to laugh it off, to regain control of the situation and my actions, but who would have believed anyone could be so stupid? And, besides, I had no one in New York. I was alone. I could just keep it to myself. If I told no one, it would be as if it had never happened.
As I walked away from the scene, the sun burning my eyes, my head flooded with long-forgotten childhood memories. Buried memories of my father calling me a big girl’s blouse because I’d let myself be pushed around at school. My mother telling me not to be so insipid after I’d gone to her crying on my first day at comprehensive school. No, I didn’t want to tell anyone, better to pretend it had never happened. How could I have been so fucking pathetic? They literally robbed me in broad daylight!
A sign outside a pub promoting happy hour beers for $5 a pop halted me. I only had $5 left. Not enough for a tip, but fuck ‘em, I thought. I sat at the bar and downed half of my first beer in one, feeling my shoulders soften and my heart rate dip.
Those mother fuckers. Fucking con artists. What really riled me up was the fact that I’d been so polite to them. I’d given them my money and they hadn’t even said thank you. And then he’d had the nerve to ask for more? Who the fuck did they take me for? They had no idea who I was or what I was capable of. I’d make sure they never recorded anything ever again.
What was the name of their group? I took the CD out of my bag but noticed something that made my brain snap. It had clearly been signed multiple times to different people. The inky letters smudged out over and over again to make space for the next sucker’s name. But only I had been stupid enough to get as far as handing over cash. I was the the only sucker who’d forked out a twenty.
As I realised this, something, or should I say someone, inside me took over. Someone who knew exactly what to do. I ordered another beer and a shot of whisky, sank it and placed the empty glasses back on the bar.
“Same again, please. I’m just going out for a smoke. Back in a minute.”
I marched back towards Times Square, running through possible lines to greet them with when I saw them. I’d tell them all what was what. I’d make them see how pathetic they were. They weren’t musicians. Not like me. They were thieves.
But as I arrived at Times Square, my mind a ravaging cesspit of mixed emotions, it seemed that they had all moved on. At first I was relieved. At least I’d intended to give them a piece of my mind. I could at least tell myself I wasn’t a coward. It was their lucky day. But then, in the reddening, sideways sun, I saw Smiler sitting alone on a huge plant pot.
He looked different. His chains were gone and his lips were firmly closed. No gold peeping through. He was talking on the phone, smoking a cigarette. I stomped over to him. Emboldened by my sense of righteousness, I smacked the phone away from his ear with the back of my hand and pushed him off the plant pot.
“What the fuck, man? You crazy?”
“I want my twenty dollars back you thieving fuck!”
I didn’t know where this confidence had come from, but it felt good and natural somehow, like I’d been waiting to get it out of my system for years.
“What the fuck are you talking about, man?”
“You conned me out of twenty dollars! Today! Just a couple of hours ago!”
“Hey man, that was a donation! We fightin’ racism here!”
“Don’t give me that shit! You’re doing nothing but hustling and thieving, and I want my fucking money back! Fucking give it to me!”
“Look man, I don’t know who you are, but you better back the fuck up!”
For a moment I thought I’d got the wrong guy. His face was a different shape without the gold teeth, but I knew it was him.
But, wait, hang on a minute… He didn’t remember me? Really? I was that forgettable?
“I want my money back,” I said as quietly as my anger would allow.
“Shit, man,” he said in exhausted defeat. “Give me the fucking CD back.”
I shoved the CD back into his hand as hard as I could.
“Here’s your fucking money, man,” he said, thumbing a twenty out of a huge role of notes he had rapped in a rubber band.
“You know I’m a music producer?” I hissed. “You know I could have got you on that billboard? For real! But you fucking blew it. You and all you phony mates!”
“Listen man, we gave up on that shit years ago. We tried. We tried the honest way! We worked hard on our game, but it came to nothin’ and now we’re just out here tryna survive. Whatever it takes. We got nobody else, nobody except girlfriends and babies and crippled parents we gotta take care of. This is it for us!”
He clearly didn’t recognise me from our encounter earlier. He probably hadn’t even seen me in the first place. Instead of feeling victorious as I looked down at the twenty dollar bill in my hand, I descended even lower, beyond rage into sorrow.
“Have a nice night,” Smiler said bitterly as he skulked off in the rush hour crowd.
I went back to the Irish bar and was happy to see my beer and whisky still there. I sank them both and ordered the same again. My mind slowed with each gulp, the anger now sizzling down to a low ache. I felt like my heart was being eaten by my stomach. It was as if, for the first time in my life, I could see myself as others had always seen me. A nobody with a big ego. A wannabe without talent. And, worst of all, a mediocre musician. It wasn’t Smiler I hated, it was me.
I drank until I ran out of money, which wasn’t long, then stumbled home, verbally abusing myself in my mind the whole way.
I lived in a flat with three Korean housemates, but I could never tell if they were in or not. This evening was no different. I went straight to the fridge and opened a bottle of white wine that had been there for months. I hate white wine but would have drank bleach at this point.
I couldn’t bare the clarity, the reality I now found myself in. How could I carry on in New York now that I’d seen how pathetic I really was? How could I go home and admit failure? They already knew, didn’t they? They’d already seen the real me.
I poured the bottle of wine into a huge coffee mug and chugged it down in two. But the ache was still heavy and hot in my chest. I needed to dampen the pain. I raided my housemates’ cupboards. They were all stocked identically. Each with an unopened bottle of Korean whisky. I grabbed one and took it to my room, laid on my bed and took long peppery mouthfuls.
How could I ever move on from this? I’d tried everything else. I’d tried working at my father’s office as an accountant. I’d tried studying to be a teacher, but I’d failed at everything. Music was my only passion, the only thing I could foresee myself doing for the rest of my life. And now it was all gone. But why? Just because that mother fucker had scammed me on of twenty dollars? No, it wasn’t that. It was that I’d faced myself and seen the loser I really was. A pathetic piece of piss, loosely held together with fraying yarns of conceit.
I finished the bottle of whisky and stumbled out into the kitchen to grab another, bumping into doorways and furniture as I did. Back in my room I drank more, but it made me feel sick. The room began to spin and I ran hurriedly into the bathroom, vomiting from the doorway as soon as I saw the toilet. I fell to my knees, with my head practically in the bowl, my hands now in the warm puddle of bile that pooled around me on the floor.
I stood up gently and was greeted by my sallow face in the mirror. My crooked nose and scrappy beard looking even more pronounced than usual. It was a glimpse of how imagined I would turn out one day, living on the streets with nothing but memories from my failed music career to keep my mind occupied.
I shared the bathroom with one of my housemates and I rifled through his cabinet. He had a small pouch full of bandages, antiseptic creams and tablets. I opened a new pack of paracetamol and shoved three tablets into my mouth, swallowing them with water that I drank straight from the tap. My head throbbed as I tilted it to drink from the tap again. Fuck it, I thought, I want to sleep. I don’t want to feel this anymore. I emptied the whole packet into my hand and swallowed them all in one for good measure. I just wanted to sleep and forget about the whole thing, forget about myself.
I went to the second bathroom in our flat, the bathroom shared by my other Korean housemates, and found two identical toiletry bags. They were both filled with the exact same supply of tablets, bandages and creams, as if they’d been issued as standard along with the bottles of whisky by the army. I grabbed the two packets of paracetamol, stumbled into the kitchen to pinch more whisky, then headed back to my room.
This’ll sort you out, I was thinking. I sipped more whisky. It didn’t even burn anymore and I started to feel better. I felt nothing, in fact. Hollow. My problems dissolving like effervescence in a glass. What if I could always feel like this, I thought? What if the rest of my life could be completely free from pain and disgust. What if I never gave myself a chance to fail? I could finish my story my own way. I could end it with me being a successful music student with a bright future in production ahead of me.
The two packets of paracetamol in front of me represented my way out. A pain free escape from my mediocre life, from a future of failure and suffering. I thought about writing a letter, about updating my Instagram account, but I didn’t care anymore. It felt good to be able to let go of it all.
I emptied the two packets of paracetamol onto my bed, about twenty or thirty pills, and began to knock them back two at a time, chasing them down with greedy gulps of whisky. It amazed me how quickly I got through them, how easy it had been. Why hadn’t I thought of it before?
I laid down on my bed, feeling the reality of the situation coming in and out of focus. Three packets of paracetamol total, the bottle of wine and almost two full bottles of whisky. Had I actually consumed all of that or had I just thought about it? I couldn’t tell for sure.
Like those dreams where you can’t move, I sank into my mattress like a stone, as if the weight of the world were thrusting down upon my body. It wasn’t that I couldn’t move my limbs, but that it felt as though I had no limbs to move. I was nothing more than a pair of eyes peering out of a mattress.
Then a noise from within the apartment. Someone was home after all. Music. I recognised the vocals, the harmonies…
“I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like.”
I hadn’t heard it since I was a six or seven year old child. I’d listen to it on my little red walkman while doing laps of my house on my fluorescent yellow bike. I felt safe within the confines of our garden, knowing my parents were just there in the kitchen.
I tried to sit up on my bed so I could listen properly, but I couldn’t move.
“Fat bottomed girls, they’ll be riding today,” Freddie sang. I used to laugh at that bit, I remembered. I tried to laugh now, but it felt as if my body had completely disappeared.
I remembered the little scrapes and scratches that would build up on my knuckles as I squeezed around the far corner of the house, past the shed that bled sap and smelled of freshly-cut wood. I was proud of my wounds and showed them off to my friends at school, along with the scram lines given to me by my cat. I’d hold her so tightly, kissing her and squeezing her in my arms, that she’d claw at me until I’d let her go. I’d go crying to my mum and she’d hug me and tell me to count to ten.
“You’re getting faster and faster, aren’t you, my little racer? They’ll start calling you ‘Dangerous Derek’ before too long!”
She’d give me a chocolate bar and a glass of milk and take me to rent a videotape from the Spar down the road. She loved me so much. It always felt as if she saw the real me. And for the first time ever, I saw myself that way too. Just a little boy who was too scared to leave the garden.
What if I could go back to that time and be that person again? Maybe I could be happy like that. Maybe that was all I needed. To be with my family, to ride my bike in the midday sun with my wobbly Queen cassette. To watch Robocop with my cat. I could do that! I could make that happen. I could just go home and forget bout this whole music career thing.
The song continued to play in the next room – “You say coke, I say ‘caine, You say John, I say Wayne, Hot dog, I say cool it man, I don’t wanna be the President of America” – but as hard as I tried to move, I simply couldn’t. Not even a millimetre. I wanted to panic, but I didn’t know how to without the use of my body. I couldn’t feel my lungs or my heart rate. I tried to scream, but I had no mouth.
It was only when the light began to fade that I realised what I had done, as my eyelids grew heavier and heavier, finally locking shut completely.
I was cold. Formless. Alone in the dark. Wishing with all my might I could just go home.
Wishing I could just be me.