"Have you heard the story of Gunny Joe? Who lived way down by the Kokomo? Aaaah, Gunny Joe!”
Rob Rothstein bellowed the nonsensical rhyme at the top of his lungs, right in the middle of the sleazy donut place at 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan that he had entered to get away from the bitter cold. He was drunk and he didn’t care who knew it. The one-eyed old guy behind the counter, who had seen everything, just handed Ron his paper cup of coffee with no expression.
Rob was coming from one New Year’s Eve party and going to another. The first, in an old apartment house on 20th Street facing Gramercy Park, was given by Jamie, one of the people from his old job. The owner of the small PR firm was a Fordham graduate and most of the other people who worked there had gone to Fordham too. Most of them, although Rob’s age, were fairly conservative, not in politics, which they didn’t talk about, but in terms of lifestyle, family and career. They were clean-cut, well-dressed, red-cheeked and smiling, in contrast to Rob with his jeans, that he had worn three days in a row, his shirt with ink stains on the pocket, his un-shined shoes, and his anger and frustration. They milled around, drank beer, greeted each other loudly and talked about football, with Billy Joel playing in the background. There was really only one thing Rob shared with them–drinking.
After being at the party for about an hour, Rob began to feel claustrophobic. He had to leave. Now, he got on the subway, on his way to his second New Year’s Eve Party up in Inwood. By his calculations, he’d probably get there about an hour before the New Year.
The A train was packed with people going to New Year parties. Across from Rob was a group of young European tourists dressed in party hats and speaking a language that he couldn’t make out. Next to him was a leather-jacketed homeboy playing "Rapper’s Delight" on a boom box. The train picked up speed on the long stretch between 59th and 125th Streets. When it got to 181st, Rob felt strange because that was his stop. But he had to continue to 207th, the last stop on the line.
Once in Inwood, Rob walked up to 218th Street, then started walking west, soldiering forward against the icy wind. Some of these homes, he thought, had to be worth a fortune, like those brick houses where you had to walk up two or three stone staircases just to get to the front door. The Art Deco apartment houses weren’t too bad either. Without a doubt, this must be the most expensive part of Inwood. He identified the address where the party was, right across from Baker Field, rang the front door bell, and took the elevator up.
If Rob’s first party was Billy Joel, this one was Elvis Costello, Devo and Blondie. There was a lot more dancing and drinking, and quite a bit of pot smoking too. Unlike the 20th Street crew, these guys didn’t only drink beer–they passed around bottles of red wine and Sangria. Rob was finally able to relax. The girls were his type–no makeup, long straight hair, jeans, handcrafted jewelry. He looked around and saw his friend, Milos the Czech, who was talking to two young Hispanic guys whom Rob took to be fellow students of his from CCNY. Milos was a few years older than most of the people here and about the same age as Rob. When Milos defected from Czechoslovakia and came to the U.S., the ungrateful authorities made him start his college career from the beginning again.
"How are yew, Rob?" Milos asked. "My classmates here were just showing me this liqueur made of cane sugar. It’s from de Dominican Republic! De person giving dis party is dis vorking-class voman called Risa, I don’t know her, but she’s a gude person anyvay! So how’s de other party?"
"So boring! I’m glad I left there when I did!"
"My friend Jonasz is on his vay, you remember, de computer guy? He has two ideologies–de Buddhist ideology and de secretary-fucking ideology. Dey don’t mix!" Both laughed.
"Any food here?" Rob asked. "The other place had nothing but some chips and dip and raw carrots and celery."
"Are you kidding?" answered Milos. "Here, ve have everything! Ve have chili, ve have vegetarian chili, ve have lasagna, ve have eggplant…"
"Great!" Rob answered. "Is your wife coming?"
"Yes, she’s coming a little vhile later vit one of her fellow anthropology students. I bet der having a debate about Melville Herskovits or Frank Bals now!" Both laughed. "You vant some grass?"
"Maybe a little later. I’ve got to eat first."
"OK. I go to bathroom. I think dat tomorrow night, me and some of my friends, ve go to punk club in de East Village. Vant to go vit us?"
"Definitely! See you later, Milos. By the way, in a few weeks, Reagan will be president."
"Don’t remind me! Dat stupid cowboy actor? Dat’s America for yew" Again, they laughed, and then Milos walked down the long hallway to the bathroom.
Rob walked back into the other room, took some chips with salsa and a piece of garlic bread, and sat down on the couch. It was so soft he fell backward into the cushion. Next to him was a breathtaking, very tall thin girl with long brown hair and olive skin, almost certainly Mediterranean. She was wearing turquoise earrings, a silver bracelet, jeans and a jacket with a fur collar – not the kind of fur collar you’d buy on Fifth Avenue, but the kind you’d buy at a thrift store.
"Hi," Rob said, extending his hand, "I’m Rob."
"I’m Delia De Leon. Are you a City College student also?"
Aha. De Leon, an old Sephardic Jewish name. She was perfect. "No," Rob answered, "I’m just friends with Tomas over there. I’ve graduated already. I even have a master’s! I went to the State University at Albany, then Hunter."
"Hey, my sister goes to Albany! So what do you do?"
"I’m a housing assistant for the city, but I’m looking to get a job in city planning–that’s what I got my master’s in. What are you majoring in?"
"I have a double major–psychology and art. Many of the people in my family were artists. Some of my photos are on display at the Ethical Culture Society in Riverdale."
Perfect! Rob loved artistic types, although he himself had no artistic talent. Maybe someday he’d write poetry. The next question that Rob wanted to ask was embarrassing, so he decided to begin with a statement instead. "I live in a studio apartment on Cabrini Boulevard, across from Milos and his wife. How about you."
"Oh, I was living with my parents, but I just moved with two other girls to our own place on Broadway Terrace, not too far from here." Rob was glad. He was tired of meeting these dull, timid and socially awkward "nebbish" types who had never lived anywhere other than with their parents. Even when after receiving his B.A., he had been stuck at home for almost a year, he consoled himself with the fact that at least he had lived away beforehand.
"That’s great!" Rob told Delia. "Where did you come from before?"
"I grew up in Kingsbridge, in Tibbett Towers." BOOM! Tibbett Towers. To Rob, that meant just one thing. "Do you know Celeste Bernstein?"
"Of course? Who doesn’t know Celeste? I haven’t heard from her lately. I hear she’s become a real women’s libber."
Rob couldn’t help himself – he started asking question after question about Celeste Bernstein. Delia started to get annoyed. He knew he’d lost any chance of going out with her. In a haze, he made his way to the other room and took a glass of Chianti. Celeste Bernstein had been the great love of Rob’s life. They met during Christmas vacation while Rob was a freshman in college and Celeste was still in high school. Her family seemed very exotic to him – her mother was a playwright and her father was a former Trotskyite, although he was now the branch manager of a bank. Rob lost his virginity with her, and that heart-felt, passionate night they spent together up in Albany was one of his most cherished memories. They wrote each other long romantic letters, and he’d come in to the city every other weekend to see her.
But even then, she seemed restless, occasionally talking about wanting to have sex with other guys and girls, although she never followed through. She changed her plans for the future every other week–one time she wanted to become a doctor, the next, an airplane pilot. Sometimes she would talk about living in Hawaii, other times, about moving to Europe. After she proposed that for the Fourth of July they run naked through the hallway of her apartment building to "freak everybody out," he began to drift away from her. It was only when his friend from Brooklyn began to see her that he realized how much she meant to him.
Last year, Rob had a second chance with Celeste. They had three dates. One day on the way home she suddenly started singing nonsense syllables and shrieking wildly. She reminded Rob of a former co-worker who forgot to take her psychiatric medication one day and had to be sent home. When he asked Celeste timidly if he could spend the night with her, she turned on him savagely and accused him of treating her "like a piece of meat" –as if they had never had a relationship, as if she had never had any of the one-night stands that she’d bragged about. When he called her the next week, she threatened to call the police. Now, he hungered for any news of Celeste. He started to cry.
A few minutes after New Year, he grabbed some chocolate cake and said goodbye to Milos and his wife. He went outside, not bothering to say goodbye to Delia. Everywhere around him, people were celebrating the New Year. And here he was, mourning an old love.
Raanan Geberer is the managing editor of a community newspaper in Brooklyn, N.Y. He grew up in the Bronx and has also lived in Boston, Indianapolis and San Francisco. He now lives in Manhattan with his wife Rhea. His hobbies are playing keyboard with his rock band, working out at the gym, growing vegetables in his community garden, and reading about history, politics and religion.