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In New York City: An Incantation

6 minute read
Gregory Jaynes

The Sunday before we moved to Sodom, I went with my daughter to church, a sweet little Methodist church in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Except to mark an occasional death I have not been much of a churchgoer lately, but on this Sabbath my girl Whitney was to sing solo, and I felt drawn to a front pew, aisle. I am happy to report she did herself and her old man proud, and I carried the memory of her lovely performance with me to the city (she stayed on to see to her schooling) as well as something the preacher said. At one point in his sermon — and here I must confess to an annoying lifelong lapse: I have trouble tracking sermons, and I could swear I heard someone say this one was taken from the Book of Macadamia Nuts — the pastor said, “Now we shall all rise and sing hymn No. 508, Lead On, O Kinky Turtle.” At that, my fellow parishioners fell to mumbling. The good reverend then blushed crimson and admitted that title stuck in his head because his own child called it that. Recovering his composure, to say nothing of his solemnity, our guide next instructed us to stand and “sing hymn No. 508, Lead On, O King Eternal.”

Well, in the days since, the phrase lead on, o kinky turtle has assumed a profound significance in the course of my wanderings. I use it in a kind of incantatory fashion, muttering “lead on, o kinky turtle” whenever I feel shorted, stiffed, put upon by outside forces. I keep it handy, as you would a rabbit’s foot, for there is a lot of bullying going down in this town, my new home, and one must strive not to be caught without a device to ease the pressure gathering under the hood. Lead on, o kinky turtle. The first time I invoked the expression was on the George Washington Bridge. At a quarter past one, I was 20 miles from the Hudson River. At half past three, I was across.

I am not new to New York — I moved here first in 1966, second in 1976 and now third, a symmetrical ten years after that. But I bring with me this time a condition I did not have before. I have age. I am a grumpie, a gray, upwardly mobile professional (although, silly me, during the last absence from the city I forgot to make a zillion dollars, the requisite for settling in today). Less amused, and no doubt less amusing, I no longer suffer everyday brutalities in stride; hence the need for the incantation. Of course, to be fair, any period of adjustment is rough on the nerves. It gets all the more complicated when you find yourself running short on patience and long on temper — a consequence of having age. And if you don’t cut yourself some slack somewhere in this stretch, you may overhear a relative phoning the guys in the white jackets. Maestro, eight bars of some “for instance” music, please.

Since I last poked around the block, a pernicious gouge called key money has come into vogue. By this practice, anyone vacating a flat can charge the first sucker in line for it any price the market will bear, and the market will bear a lot. Also called fixture money (this rationalization has you buying the present tenant’s improvements, such as the flakes on the floor that used to be the paint on the ceiling), it is quite illegal, done entirely off the books, and you, made a felon by the simple act of trying to rent an apartment, will spend your first weeks denying to kith and kin, and to your own soul in the dead of night, that you were robbed. In my case, after agonizing to a no-nonsense decision (these are my funds, and I’ll be a better man to be rid of them), the deal fell through. At the eleventh hour the fellow moving out demanded I join him in litigation against the landlord, an order that had to be satisfied before I could move in. Even I have limits. I drew the line at suing for shelter.

And walked round the corner to sign on with a new plastic high-rise. In four months, I calculated last evening, I will have paid more in rent than my father paid for his home way back when. The very dollhouse-size room in which I stood totting my sums costs $19.72 a day, my arithmetic machine told me, just before the aneurysm formed. I happened to be in the kitchen, working on the top of my toy refrigerator, at the time. I think possibly it would be unbearable to know the living room’s per diem.

Just now, a print Peeping Tom to whom I am quite close looked over my shoulder and said, “Oh, cut it out, you dope. You moved here. If you don’t get around to a kind word soon, everyone will think you’re an idiot.”

I like the blue light in Gotham’s canyons this time of year. I like the cab driver I had the other day. Passing a bank that was giving away blankets to new depositors, he recalled that a bank had once given him a toaster. One morning he popped in his bread and padded off to shower. The toaster caught fire. “You get a toaster in an appliance store, it catches fire, you take it back. I defy you to try taking a toaster back to a bank!”

And I would like to have a telephone. My second day here, I waited hours for the installer, who never showed. Leaving for work, I found my building’s employees doing picket duty on the sidewalk. The doorman, wearing a sandwich board and thoroughly on strike, told me he had sent my installer away. “He’s a good union man,” he said. So apparently is everyone else at the phone company.

“Hey,” the doorman went on, “do me a favor. Call the landlord and complain.”

“Hey,” I shot back, getting the hang of streetwise give and take, “I don’t have a phone.”

“Hey,” my unfazed picket said, fishing in his pocket, “here’s a quarter.”

“Lead on, o kinky turtle,” I said, accepting the coin and dumbfounding my interlocutor. I used to feel that I owned this town. With a knock ’em dead incantation like mine, who’s to say I won’t again?

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