Cleaning Up After
It had been almost three
years since I’d seen old Americans, fat ones, ones on crutches. Or roundeye
women. I’d been away dodging bad guys in Vietnam. Four weeks back in Manhattan and it was a
shock when I ran into Starla Markowski on Second Avenue.
“Jackie Boy, are you a
sight!” she shouted. “Where the hell you
“Avoiding getting shot in
‘Nam. Christ, is it really you, Starla?”
“In the flesh,” and she
shook her breasts.
Her nose was too large.
Her eyelids and eyebrows hung down at the
corners, like the laws of gravity were battling the forces of inner enlightenment.
Her even white teeth had a distracting gap in front. A dragon tattoo on her
ankle. But in spite of her grab-bag mix of features,
the entire package bubbled over with excitement and energy. Not tall, not beautiful,
but Starla had a personality
like a soda bottle ready to pop its cap.
“So, tell me
what’s happening,” she said.
“I’m getting used to
what’s changed since I left.” I already
knew everything was upside down. The
long-hair kids were wearing flowers and smoking dope in Tomkins Square. Fourteen-year-old
chicks were hustling change
from guys on the street. New York’s cops
were talking about a strike.
“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell
you what’s shaking. I’m waiting tables
at a place on 14th Street, a hash house but the food’s good. Owner’s
a guy was hitting on me at a party,
so I told him to come across with a job.
Me and him are pals now. He
probably would’ve gave me the key to the joint, but I ain’t easy. And
I got a pad on 12th Street with two
roommates.” She leered. “Both
Starla was tough as they
come. We’d gone to high school together
in Jersey, then I left for two years at Penn State before the Army collared
me. I could write a simple declarative
sentence, so when I got back stateside, I found work as a cub reporter on a
neighborhood newspaper. Eighty-five bucks
a week paid for my crash pad with the bathtub in the kitchen.
It felt good to have
Starla on my arm again. I guided her to
a bar a block from my place on Bowery. Monaghan’s
was an Irish joint filled with geezers, but it had a jukebox stocked with classic
Coming out of Monaghan’s
we were knocked backwards as a kid ran past.
He was 10 steps ahead of two uniformed cops closing the distance. One
cop whacked the kid in the head with his
nightstick, the other ran up and kicked him in the ribs as he lay there.
“Motherfucker, you halt
when I say halt,” one cop shouted.
“Tough town,” Starla said.
“Wonder if the kid understood English.”
A tough town, but I was rewarded
finding old friends and new. Weekends were
filled with peace and love. That beat
poet Allen Ginsberg showed up regularly at the rallies and peace marches,
clanging his little finger cymbals and chanting Hare Krishna. To me and Starla,
this was free entertainment
before we went up to her rooftop to drink wine and toke up.
Me and Starla were over at
the park when she said, “Watch out for that guy in the cheap suit.” She
dug an elbow into my ribs and pointed to
a middle-aged joker wandering near the crowd.
“He’s a plain clothes narc.”
“What?” I asked.
Name’s Riorden. I seen him bust kids for smoking weed. Literally.
Take ‘em down like dead meat, cuff ‘em and call for a car to haul them
“They can’t do that!”
She smiled. “Welcome
to the Big Apple. It’s okay if you’re the law.”
It was bad if you’re not
the law. Two weeks later we were back at
the park. Starla said she was going to
get some egg creams at Gem’s Spa and for me to wait by the dog walk. I
sat back on a bench and lit a cigarette, happy
to be home again. Then I saw Starla
coming back on Avenue A with the drinks.
A cop car pulled up to her, the guy she tagged as a narc jumped out and
hit her in the head. Riorden. As
she dropped her drinks and began to fall,
he grabbed her and swung her limp body into the car.
“Hey!” I shouted, running up
the street. When I got to the avenue the car — with Starla in it — had zipped
through a red light. Two ladies standing
there stared at me like I was the crazy one.
The New York Post hit
me with the news next afternoon. “Girl Drowns in East River.” Story ID’d her as an anonymous suicide.
I knew it was Starla when the paper described
her ankle tattoo. A photo of the
Manhattan Bridge was illustrated with a dotted line showing the arc Starla’s
body took going over the edge.
That night I started
drinking and thinking about Starla. She
wasn’t an uptown la-de-da queen, not a Wall Street hotshot, not a friend of the
mayor. Just a sweet dumb kid. And
now she was dead for no reason at all. Because of Riorden.
With Starla gone my place
felt eerily quiet, the way Manhattan goes silent when a car alarm in the street
finally stops. The whole world had gone
empty because Starla was dead. And all
the training America had given me to deliver justice in Vietnam rushed back. It
was time to do some house cleaning.
A couple of calls to the
Police Department got me Riorden’s office phone number. “There’s
a drug delivery at midnight tomorrow
night,” I told his answering machine.
“Two kilos that a Mexican kid is delivering. They’ll be at
the park along the East River at Eighth
Street. I’m just an anonymous concerned
I took the next day off
work at the paper — Monday. A bad summer
cold, I told my boss. Then I called a
guy name of Little Jeffrey who sold Starla a nickel bag of weed every now and
then. Told him he could find the narc who
killed Starla at midnight. He might even
invite his dealer friends to join him in a Waste Riorden party.
That night was cool and
foggy as I lay in the riverside park’s shrubbery. And waited. For Riorden.
For the dealers. For whoever
wanted to rumble. I brought my Dad’s old
Army revolver just in case. If the
dealers didn’t waste Riorden, I’d have to.
But I hadn’t reconnoitered the park and was surprised to see construction
there. Piles of rock and timbers, a boom
for hauling stuff, tangles of rope and wire.
A real mess.
Half an hour later three
guys in hoodies strolled by. Suddenly
Riorden jumped out screaming “Police!”
The three dealers, who were just long-hair hippies, scattered. Then I
heard a gunshot from one of the
hippies. Wild West, I thought, lying there
in the grass. Riorden skipped toward the
river bank for cover, jumping over the piles of construction shit.
“Police,” he screamed
again, this time in a falsetto. Bastard
knew he was outnumbered, but he’d wanted to make the collar on his own.
Another wild shot, but
this one clanged off a metal girder.
Must have hit a lock because something started dropping from the
scaffolding. Riorden realized what was
happening as a rope snapped around his ankle.
The bucket hanging from the boom started down and Riorden began a swift
rise up. His arms grabbed the rope
around his leg, but he couldn’t get untangled before his head hit the
boom. Then the bucket of rock and stuff
smashed, spilling over the sidewalk. Riorden
— being heavier — dropped 30 feet.
It wasn’t pretty.
Riorden was laid out flat. The dopers walked away into the
darkness. I crossed back over the East
River Drive to the Bowery and my empty pad.
Next day’s Daily
News couldn’t explain what a
police detective was doing hanging round dead at midnight by the East
Soon’s work ended, I headed
for the Dom on St. Marks Place. I found
a couple pals at the bar and said, “Riorden the narc won’t hassle the
neighborhood anymore.” My glass was
never empty that night as we toasted Starla.
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