City of Night
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City of Night

John Rechy

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  1. 404 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

City of Night

John Rechy

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The cult classic novel from "one of the few major American writers whose life is as interesting, and meaningful, as his work" (Michael Cunningham). When John Rechy's explosive first book appeared in 1963, it marked a radical departure from all other stories of its kind, and gave voice to a subculture that had never before been revealed with such acuity. It earned comparisons to Jean Genet and Jack Kerouac, even as Rechy—who had based the novel on his own life—was personally attacked by scandalized reviewers. Nevertheless, City of Night became an international bestseller and ushered in a new era of fiction. More than fifty years later, it remains a classic. Bold and inventive in style, Rechy is unflinching in his portrayal of one anonymous "youngman" and his search for self-knowledge and love within a furtive, neon-lit world of male hustlers, drag queens, closeted cops, and fetishists. As the narrator moves from El Paso to Times Square, from Pershing Square to the French Quarter, and through the lives of an extraordinary collection of characters who dwell in this clandestine world, Rechy delivers a portrait of the edges of America that has lost none of its power to move and exhilarate. "Rechy's tone rings absolutely true, is absolutely his own, and he has the kind of discipline which allows him a rare and beautiful recklessness. He tells the truth, and tells it with such passion that we are forced to share in the life he conveys. This is a most humbling and liberating achievement." —James Baldwin

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Grove Press
Part One
“Children, go where I send you—how shall I send you?
I’m going to send you one by one. . . .”
—Children, Go Where I Send You
LATER I WOULD THINK OF AMERICA as one vast City of Night stretching gaudily from Times Square to Hollywood Boulevard—jukebox-winking, rock-n-roll-moaning: America at night fusing its darkcities into the unmistakable shape of loneliness.
Remember Pershing Square and the apathetic palmtrees. Central Park and the frantic shadows. Movie theaters in the angry morning-hours. And wounded Chicago streets. . . . Horrormovie courtyards in the French Quarter—tawdry Mardi Gras floats with clowns tossing out glass beads, passing dumbly like life itself. . . . Remember rock-n-roll sexmusic blasting from jukeboxes leering obscenely, blinking many-colored along the streets of America strung like a cheap necklace from 42nd Street to Market Street, San Francisco. . . .
One-night sex and cigarette smoke and rooms squashed in by loneliness. . . .
And I would remember lives lived out darkly in that vast City of Night, from all-night movies to Beverly Hills mansions.
But it should begin in El Paso, that journey through the cities of night. Should begin in El Paso, in Texas. And it begins in the Wind. . . . In a Southwest windstorm with the gray clouds like steel doors locking you in the world from Heaven.
I cant remember now how long that windstorm lasted—it might have been days—but perhaps it was only hours—because it was in that timeless time of my boyhood, ages six through eight.
My dog Winnie was dying. I would bring her water and food and place them near her, stand watching intently—but she doesnt move. The saliva kept coming from the edges of her mouth. She had always been fat, and she had a crazy crooked grin—but she was usually sick: Once her eyes turned over, so that they were almost completely white and she couldnt see—just lay down, and didnt try to get up for a day. Then she was well, briefly, smiling again, wobbling lopsidedly.
Now she was lying out there dying.
At first the day was beautiful, with the sky blue as it gets only in memories of Texas childhood. Nowhere else in the world, I will think later, is there a sky as clear, as blue, as Deep as that. I will remember other skies: like inverted cups, this shade of blue or gray or black, with limits, like painted rooms. But in the Southwest, the sky was millions and millions of miles deep of blue—clear, magic, electric blue. (I would stare at it sometimes, inexplicably racked with excitement, thinking: If I get a stick miles long and stand on a mountain, I’ll puncture Heaven—which I thought of then as an island somewhere in the vast sky—and then Heaven will come tumbling down to earth. . . .) Then, that day, standing watching Winnie, I see the gray clouds massing and rolling in the horizon, sweeping suddenly terrifyingly across the sky as if to battle, giant mushrooms exploding, blending into that steely blanket. Now youre locked down here so Lonesome suddenly youre cold. The wind sweeps up the dust, tumbleweeds claw their way across the dirt. . . .
I moved Winnie against the wall of the house, to shelter her from the needlepointed dust. The clouds have shut out the sky completely, the wind is howling violently, and it is Awesomely dark. My mother keeps calling me to come in. . . . From the porch, I look back at my dog. The water in the bowl beside her has turned into mud. . . . Inside now, I rushed to the window. And the wind is shrieking into the house—the curtains thrashing at the furniture like giant lost birds, flapping against the walls, and my two brothers and two sisters are running about the beat-up house closing the windows, removing the sticks we propped them open with. I hear my father banging on the frames with a hammer, patching the broken panes with cardboard.
Inside, the house was suddenly serene, safe from the wind; but staring out the window in cold terror, I see boxes and weeds crashing against the walls outside, almost tumbling over my sick dog. I long for something miraculous to draw across the sky to stop the wind. . . . I squeezed against the pane as close as I could get to Winnie: If I keep looking at her, she cant possibly die! A tumbleweed rolled over her.
I ran out. I stood over Winnie, shielding my eyes from the slashing wind, knelt over her to see if her stomach was still moving, breathing. And her eyes open looking at me. I listen to her heart (as I used to listen to my mother’s heart when she was sick so often and I would think she had died, leaving me Alone—because my father for me then existed only as someone who was around somehow; taking furious shape later, fiercely).
Winnie is dead.
It seemed the windstorm lasted for days, weeks. But it must have been over, as usual, the next day, when Im standing next to my mother in the kitchen. (Strangely, I loved to sit and look at her as she fixed the food—or did the laundry: She washed our clothes outside in an aluminum tub, and I would watch her hanging up the clean sheets flapping in the wind. Later I would empty the water for her, and I stared intrigued as it made unpredictable patterns on the dirt. . . .) I said: “If Winnie dies—” (She had of course already died, but I didnt want to say it; her body was still outside, and I kept going to see if miraculously she is breathing again.) “—if she dies, I wont be sad because she’ll go to Heaven and I’ll see her there.” My mother said: “Dogs dont go to Heaven, they havent got souls.” She didnt say that brutally. There is nothing brutal about my mother: only a crushing tenderness, as powerful as the hatred I would discover later in my father. “What will happen to Winnie, then?” I asked. “Shes dead, thats all,” my mother answers, “the body just disappears, becomes dirt.”
I stand by the window, thinking: It isn’t fair. . . .
Then my brother, the younger of the two—I am the youngest in the family—had to bury Winnie.
I was very religious then. I went to Mass regularly, to Confession. I prayed nightly. And I prayed now for my dead dog: God would make an exception. He would let her into Heaven.
I stand watching my brother dig that hole in the backyard. He put the dead dog in and covered it. I made a cross and brought flowers. Knelt. Made the sign of the cross: “Let her into Heaven. . . .”
In the days that followed—I dont know exactly how much later—we could smell the body rotting. . . . The day was a ferocious Texas summerday with the threat of rain: thunder—but no rain. The sky lit up through the cracked clouds, and lightning snapped at the world like a whip. My older brother said we hadnt buried Winnie deep enough.
So he dug up the body, and I stand by him as he shovels the dirt in our backyard (littered with papers and bottles covering the weeds which occasionally we pulled, trying several times to grow grass—but it never grew). Finally the body appeared. I turned away quickly. I had seen the decaying face of death. My mother was right. Soon Winnie will blend into the dirt. There was no soul, the body would rot, and there would be Nothing left of Winnie.
That is the incident of my early childhood that I remember most often. And that is why I say it begins in the wind. Because somewhere in that plain of childhood time must have been planted the seeds of the restlessness.
Before the death of Winnie, there are other memories of loss.
We were going to plant flowers in the front yard of the house we lived in before we moved to the house where Winnie died. I was digging a ledge along the sidewalk, and my mother was at the store getting the seeds. A man came and asked for my father, but my father isnt home. “Youre going to have to move very soon,” he tells me. I had heard the house was being sold, and we couldnt buy it, but it hadnt meant much to me. I continue shoveling the dirt. After my mother came and spoke to the man, she told me to stop making the holes. Almost snatching the seeds from her—and understanding now—I began burying them frantically as if that way we will have to stay to see them grow.
And so we moved. We moved from that clean house with the white walls and into the house where Winnie will die.
I stand looking at the house in child panic. It was the other half of a duplex, the wooden porch decayed, almost on the verge of toppling down; it slanted like a slide. A dried-up vine, dead from lack of water, still clung to the base of the porch like a skeleton, and the bricks were disintegrating in places into thin streaks of orangy powder. The sun was brazenly bright; it elongates each splinter on the wood, each broken twig on the skeleton vine. . . . I rushed inside. Huge brown cockroaches scurried into the crevices. One fell from the wall, spreading its wings—almost two inches wide—as if to lunge at me—and it splashes like a miniature plane on the floor—splut! The paper was peeling off the walls over at least four more layers, all different graycolors. (We would put up the sixth, or begin to—and then stop, leaving the house even more patched as that layer peeled too: an unfinished jigsaw puzzle which would fascinate me at night: its ragged patterns making angryfaces, angry animalshapes—but I could quickly alter them into less angry figures by ripping off the jagged edges. . . .) Where the ceiling had leaked, there are spidery brown outlines.
I flick the cockroaches off the walls, stamping angrily on them.
The house smells of Rot. I went to the bathroom. The tub was full of dirty water, and it had stagnated. It was brown, bubbly. In wild dreadful panic, I thrust my hand into the rancid water, found the stopper, pulled it out holding my breath, and looked at my arm, which is covered with the filthy brown crud.
Winters in El Paso for me later would never again seem as bitter cold as they were then. Then I thought of El Paso as the coldest place in the world. We had an old iron stove with a round belly which heated up the whole house; and when we opened the small door to feed it more coal or wood, the glowing pieces inside created a miniature of Hell: the cinders crushed against the edges, smoking. . . . The metal flues that carried the smoke from the stove to the chimney collapsed occasionally and filled the house with soot. This happened especially during the windy days, and the wind would whoosh grimespecked down the chimney. At night my mother piled coats on us to keep us warm.
Later, I would be sent out to ask one of our neighbors for a dime—“until my father comes home from work.” Being the youngest and most soulful looking in the family, then, I was the one who went. . . .
Around that time my father plunged into my life with a vengeance.
To expiate some guilt now for what I’ll tell you about him later, I’ll say that that strange, moody, angry man—my father—had once experienced a flashy grandeur in music. At the age of eight he had played a piano concert before the President of Mexico. Years later, still a youngman, he directed a symphony orchestra. Unaccountably, since I never really knew that man, he sank quickly lower and lower, and when I came along, when he was almost 50 years old, he found himself Trapped in the memories of that grandeur and in the reality of a series of jobs teaching music to sadly untalented children; selling pianos, sheet music—and soon even that bastard relationship to the world of music he loved was gone, and he became a caretaker for public parks. Then he worked in a hospital cleaning out trash. (I remember him, already a defeated old man, getting up before dawn to face the unmusical reality of soiled bloody dressings.) He would cling to stacks and stacks of symphonic music which he had played, orchestrated—still working on them at night, drumming his fingers on the table feverishly: stacks of music now piled in the narrow hallway in that house, completely unwanted by anyone but himself, gathering dust which annoyed us, so that we wanted to put them outside in the leaky aluminum garage: but he clung to those precious dust-piling manuscripts—and to newspaper clippings of his once-glory—clung to them like a dream, now a nightmare. . . . And somehow I became the reluctant inheritor of his hatred for the world that had coldly knocked him down without even glancing back.
Once, yes, there had been a warmth toward that strange red-faced man—and there were still the sudden flashes of tenderness which I will tell you about later: that man who alternately claimed French, English, Scottish descent—depending on his imaginative moods—that strange man who had traveled from Mexico to California spreading his seed—that turbulent man, married and divorced, who then married my Mother, a beautiful Mexican woman who loves me fiercely and never once understood about the terror between me ...

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