I left my apartment in North Jersey at around 7:15 AM on an unusually chilly August day. My pilgrimage would take me west, which was beneficial traffic-wise since everybody was going east into the mecca of western society: New York City.
NYC bores me. As a 27 year old man who has taken countless expeditions into the city for the past ten years, I can wholeheartedly say I have seen everything the city offers. I’ve walked through Harlem at 2 AM drunk off my ass with a group of fellow white-boys. I have examined every single sector of Times Square. I have been to the beach in Staten Island. I watched as the Twin Towers fell. I’ve won a huge stuffed bear in Coney Island. I have been to warehouse raves in Brooklyn. I have seen every band I have ever wanted to see at the various venues NYC houses. I’ve stood on the floor where Ali won his second fight against Joe Frazier. I’ve played guitar in the subway. I’ve bought a homeless man breakfast. I’ve had a picnic with a beautiful woman in Central Park. I saw a man get shot in Chinatown. I’ve stood on a long line for free Friday admission at the MOMA. I’ve gotten drunk at McSorley’s Old Ale House with strangers. I’ve seen Operas at the MET. I’ve bought cheap Broadway tickets at the TKTS booth. I stood on the street corner where Sal Paradise said goodbye to Dean Moriarty. I’ve done everything in between as well.
I’ve done all these things and now I am bored with it. So for the past year I have been bumming around with some people in the more exciting towns of New Jersey, mainly Hoboken and Jersey City, but those places are really just suburbs of NYC.
Sorry, I digress. I’m now on I-80 West in Pennsylvania. I’m on a mission to see what else is out there in America. I have never been on a plane and have only left the tri-state area once to go to Washington DC. Other than that, I’ve never been more than 20 miles out of New Jersey. My first stop will be Cleveland, Ohio. I have not done any research about the city, but I do know that I have a hotel room booked for one night and a wallet full of cash to help me make it through the night.
What was the catalyst of this taking off and journeying to a random city? And why am I not going with any like minded individuals? Well, maybe part of it has to do with my Holden Caulfield Syndrome: I have that unbearable weight of things being phony or not worth my time. It’s not that I’m egotistical, it’s just that I desire a certain taste for life. As Benjamin Gibbard put it: “I want life in every word to the extent that it’s absurd.” If I am doing the same fucking shit every day, I will lose my fucking mind. I serve tables because it gives me the flexibility in my life to go out and do crazy shit. I can also jump between jobs no problem and make comparable money between them. Some people like to know they have that regular paycheck, but not me. I guess it all figures into my general personality of not giving a fuck and trusting the winds to sail me to the right places.
So I got my shifts covered for the next two weeks by college students who need that extra bread before they go off to school and then took another two weeks off after that. I have plenty of money in the bank and a reliable car to adventure in. I’ll hit the road and see what happens. After Cleveland, I’ll decide on another destination. Maybe Chicago, maybe Denver, fuck maybe even Los Angeles. For now, I eagerly raced across the interstate.
I get to the hotel in Cleveland at 3:23 PM. So far this city has not impressed me. It looks like Newark, NJ except a tiny bit cleaner. The people don’t have an accent and they look the same as the ones in NJ. No matter, I’ll take the the streets and find out where the life is.
I walk down Euclid Ave and then turn to make my way towards the stadium. There is a bar called Goodfellers across the street, and since it is empty I decide to go in. In my experience, bartenders are the tour guides to any city. I would fucking know, I’ve given countless people the low down on the towns I’ve worked in. This bartender, his name was Johnson, told me that if I wanted to experience the nightlife I need to first go to the new casino that recently opened up and then make my way to West 6th Street, which is where some cool nightclubs and bars were. The two of us talked and drank beer for a little while, and then I left him a hefty tip, thanking him as I shook his hand, as gentlemen do.
The casino was fucking pathetic. As a Jersey boy who has been to Atlantic City numerous times, it just did not impress. So after a walk around the premise and a few Captain and Cokes, I leave the place. I head to West 6th Street and hit up the first bar I see, which was named “Nauti Mermaid”. A promising name if I’ve ever heard any. There was a man playing island music and the bar had a special on Corona’s. Not too exciting as it turned out. I moved north to the Metro Bar and Grille. By this time, I was feeling quite tipsy and got into a deep conversation with a man about getting rich by buying patents off of scientist’s chemical creations and selling them to the appropriate buyers. Or some shit like that. I checked my watch 45 mins after I got there and told the man I had to leave, but I gave him my card and told him to call me about all this crazy business shit he was talking about, knowing he would not.
I walk north on the street and see a long line at the Velvet Dog, which seems to be the top place to party. I fucking hate lines. I see some people get their ID’s checked at a door closer to me, so I say fuck it and go into that bar. I walk upstairs and order a drink. There are not too many people around, but everyone I walk by looks at me. In my hazed mind I thought, damn I must be looking fucking fine tonight. Of course, that was not the case.
I go out on the patio on the second floor and smoke a cigarette. I hear a man talk about how he is from Brooklyn, so I get in the middle of the conversation and tell him I’m from Jersey but have spent a shit ton of time in the city. His name was Marcus, and we immediately start talking about the wonders of the city and how shitty this place is in comparison. For a second I slightly miss home. Then a man grabs my shoulder, turns me around and says this: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing in here white boy?”
In my alcohol disabled mind I failed to realize that I was the only white person in this club. Every person was African American, or Black, or however it’s acceptable to describe skin color. Now that I thought about it, a lot of the women and men had tattoos that looked like the gang tattoos I would see in Newark. Does Cleveland have a shit ton of crime in this neighborhood? Am I being racist for these thoughts? I started to wish I did my research before wandering around and getting drunk.
Before I could say a word Marcus pushes me aside and gets into this man’s face. “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to nigga? That’s Jersey over there, he’s a straight up mothafucka and if you got a problem with him you gotta fuck with me first.” I now realized Marcus had a backpack on, which was slightly odd for someone who was out at a bar at night.
The guy who threatened me looked at his boys, and they all shook their heads as if it ain’t worth it. “Aight, this white boy gets a pass this one time, but only for a little while. I never let my hospitality last for very long. You got that little nigga?”
Marcus feels the part of his face where his goatee was with a sly grin. Shit, this guy is gonna go apeshit. I realized the two men who were currently squaring off were blocking the only exit. Great. “Who the fuck did you call ‘little nigga’? I know you ain’t talkin to me cause I’m the realest mothafucka in this place. I was on three tours of Iraq, mothafucka. I’ve killed more people than you can probably count. Call me little nigga one more time and I’ll fucking add you to the list.” He said this calmer than it reads, though the overtones of badass were still glaringly evident.
I was suddenly quite sober. I can’t believe this was all unfolding because a drunk white guy like myself didn’t realize he was in a seemingly all-black bar. There was a measurable silence between the two men as they squared off. The man decided to walk away, leaving Marcus victorious. He turns around and comes up to me with a smile. “You see that? That’s how you get shit done Jersey. Sorry if I got in your way, but niggas are more likely to listen to niggas you know what I’m sayin?”
“Marcus, thank you.” I shook his hand not like a white boy would. “We should probably leave now, but I’ll buy you a drink at some other place.”
“Leave? You want to look like a bitch in front of these niggas?” He started getting slightly hostile towards me, and I was not about to have that.
“You’re right man, I’m just a little drunk. What you want, I’ll go in and get it.”
He told me he wanted whatever I was having, so I went inside and got two Captain and Cokes. People still stared at me like I was an alien, but I kicked into my ‘not giving a fuck’ mode. We smoked another cigarette outside and bullshitted about his tours of Iraq. He was an infantryman during the bloodiest years of the war. He saw many of his friends die, but probably killed many more of other peoples’ friends. I told him about my buddies who have been on tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the end of that we decided to go to the next place together.
I know it may seem nuts to decide to hang out with a guy that got so crazy so quickly, but it also didn’t seem like a bad idea to have a tough dude by my side to help me get out of the likely trouble I’d get myself into. Plus, being part of a dynamic duo sounded like a good fucking time.
The rest of the places we went to I could not recall the names of. Some were clubs, some were bars, but they were all pretty cool. Being drunk coupled with the excitement of being in a new city really got me excited. At the third place we went to Marcus came up to me and told me we had to go.
“Why? We just got here.”
“Man, these fucking people are fucking racist. They want to search my bag and I ain’t about to let any motherfucker fuck with my boxing gloves.” I realized I forgot to ask what was in his backpack, but this seemed like a reasonable excuse, at this drunken time of my night, to be pissed off at the security.
“Alright man, you got any more ideas of where to go?”
“Yea dog, don’t worry about it. This next place is gonna be fucking poppin.”
And he was right. This club looked like a warehouse converted into a club. It was much more off the beaten path, we had to get a taxi there, and it was right by the water. I immediately finagled my way out of Marcus’ presence and got onto the dance floor where I started to dance with a beautiful punk-rock chick. We started talking and then she asked if I wanted to go smoke a cigarette, which we did in a stairwell in the corner of the club. We bullshitted for a few minutes, and I was excited at the possibility of spending the rest of my night with a cool chick in a cool club instead of a crazy war veteran. Alas, Marcus came down the stairwell and told me we had to leave.
“Dude, what the fuck is it this time?” I was not happy that he was going to get me kicked out of another place.
“These fucking people are racist, they say I stole a drink from the bar. I fucking paid for that drink, those motherfuckers.”
“What? Are you serious dude? Can’t you talk to the guy?”
“Nah bro, I fucking cursed out that bitch. We gotta go now.” I looked over his shoulder and a security guard was approaching us.
“Dude, can’t I just catch up with you in a little bit?”
Marcus looked appalled. “You gonna do me like that Jersey? I see how it is you racist prick. After I get your back at that place you gonna do me dirty like this. You are just a fucking white boy.”
I felt guilty. He did help me out, and it wasn’t like this punk-rock chick was going to be my wife. But then again, she could have been. Who knows? But the ethical thing to do, my drunk mind decided, was to go with Marcus. We left the place cursing off the guards. I took out two cigarettes and handed one to Marcus, and we walked up to some people smoking and asked them where else there was to go around here.
“Well, that place down the street is open late. Usually after this place and when every other place closes a bunch of people go there to end the night. It’s real nice, has a patio on the water.”
Me and Marcus shake our heads and smile at each other. “You see Jersey, fuck this place, lets go over there. Everything always works out.”
Not so much.
We get to the place down the road and it is essentially empty. There wasn’t even a person at the door checking ID’s. We went up to the bar and got two beers then ventured to the patio. It was a very nice place, and the employees and clientele seemed to be all of Eastern European descent. Marcus stuck up a conversation with a girl at one table while I sat down with three polish guys at another table. We had cordial conversation for twenty or so minutes until a security guard came up to me.
“I’m sorry sir, but you’re going to have to leave.”
I was shocked and confused. All I had done was get a beer and talk to a few people. “Excuse me, but what did I do.”
“It doesn’t matter, you need to leave now.” Marcus comes over and is about to say something but the security guard interrupts him, “you need to leave too. Right now.”
“What the fuck you mean we have to leave, we haven’t done shit. Are you fucking crazy?” Marcus asks the guard. Suddenly, that guard grapples Marcus and begins to drag him out, and before I realized it I was being dragged out as well by another guard. They throw us on the asphalt of the street.
“Get the fuck out of here now.” One of the guards tells us. This time, I was the one to fight back.
“What the fuck is your problem? What did I do to get thrown out, just fucking give me some sort of reason?” I yell at the guard.
“It doesn’t matter, just get the fuck out of here,” he replies.
“This is bullshit, I’m fucking going back in there,” I proclaim rebelliously. The man stops me, and I see three more guards waiting in the doorway.
“Don’t do this. Get out of here.”
“No. Fuck you you commie bitch. Tell me why we got kicked out. Just fucking tell me, there has to be a fucking reason.”
The guard hesitates. Another guard comes up from behind the other and says, “the reason why is we don’t let in people like him,” pointing at Marcus, “and we sure as hell don’t let in fucking shitheads that hang with people like him.”
I couldn’t believe it. I got kicked out of a bar for hanging out with a black man. I turned around to Marcus and he was fuming. Surprisingly, he had not chimed in on the argument and showed no sign of starting. I turn back to the guards and say, “fuck you you racist pricks,” and gave them the finger. I go up to Marcus and tell him we should get out of here and we shouldn’t waste our times with these racist assholes.
Marcus was standing still, staring at the guards. An overwhelming sense of doom overshadowed me and I moved away from Marcus and started to slowly walk away. One guard calls over to him, “what are you gonna do you little bitch? Just get the fuck out of here before you get hurt or worse.”
I could see Marcus was starting to sweat. “Worse? I’ll fucking show you worse.” He swung his backpack around, opened it up quickly, and pulled out a gun all in about a half second. Then he screamed, “fuck you!”
He shot the first guard in the head, the second one in the back, and got the two in the doorway in the shoulders, all with four shots. He went up to the guard who made it clear he didn’t want black people in the bar and shot him three more times as he laid on the ground. People who were making their way towards the bar started to flee. I could hear screaming. I found myself crouching in the street. “Come on Jersey, lets get the fuck out of here!” He picks me up by the shoulder and I start to run with him. We make our way to a dark alleyway under a bridge and I stop in my tracks. Marcus turns around and says, “lets move Jersey! The cops are gonna be here any minute!”
I didn’t know what to do. I’m now an accomplice to at least two murders, and I was seen by people running away with the gunman. “Dude. I can’t come with you. You just murdered those people. Why the fuck would you do that!? It’s just a fucking bar! What the fuck is your problem!?”
“Why would I do that?” He paused, getting closer to me. “Because I don’t disrespect like that! They came at me and I came back, it’s the way of the streets nigga, it’s the way of war nigga! And if you don’t wanna see time you better come with me.”
“No,” I said defiantly. “You just murdered people, I had nothing to do with that. Go away you fucking psycho, I won’t tell them anything.” My eyes started to swell as Marcus started to make strides towards me. “Just go…”
Marcus came up to me and pointed the smoking end of the gun at my head. “Nigga, I don’t think you heard me. I said let’s go, and you’re not moving.” He said this in a frighteningly calm manner. I was sweating profusely and noticeably shaking. “You’re really this big a bitch, Jersey? Let’s go or I’ll let a gunshot tell the cops where you are.”
The next five seconds seemed to stretch for hours. If I didn’t go, he would most certainly kill me. I did not want to die in Cleveland, or die at all for that fact. If I went with him I would eventually be found by the cops and charged with accomplice to murder. They would say something like, “if you were innocent why didn’t you stay?” I wanted to live, but I couldn’t go with him. I just couldn’t.
“I’m not coming.”
Marcus laughed and let the gun fall to his side. “You got some balls, Jersey.” Then he shot me in the right shoulder. The impact of the bullet threw me back onto the asphalt. All I felt was hot liquid as I put my left hand over the wound. I looked up and saw the bridge above me, there were red and blue lights bouncing off of it’s surface. We couldn’t have been a block or two from the bar Marcus murdered those guards at. I could hear his footsteps fade off into the distance. I was breathing heavily and twitching slowly on the ground, reeling from the increasing pain. I dared not to get up, and I was hoping someone would come to my rescue before enough of my thinned, alcohol-rich blood escaped my body. What a nice fucking vacation. I don’t think I’ll need the rest of the four weeks, this may be enough to make me run home and stay in my bed for double that time. If I survive, that is.
The cops found me pretty quickly, and soon after an ambulance got me and took me to a hospital. The patched me up and put me in a bed. The bullet went through my shoulder and I would get further work done tomorrow. They gave me a strong painkiller and I drifted off into a sleep clouded with dreams.
I saw myself as I was not twenty four hours ago, restless with the excitement of my pending adventure. Then the drive to Cleveland, my speakers adding my taste in music to the natural harmony of the world. The alcohol and stumbling. The yelling, the dancing, the fighting, the standoffs. The blood. An apparition came up to me as I was crouching from the shooting, time frozen still in my dreamless state. “You wanted to push things to the extreme. Your absurd desire to fill the pages of your life with intrigue and excitement has resulted in…” their hand revealing the crying faces of the deads’ parents, children, and friends. “You do not understand the extent of your actions. You are a spoke in the wheel as all others are, and you have committed a crime against the harmony of the world.” The apparition disappeared and the dead guards rose. Their eyes flowed with tears and flooded the streets as they walked towards me. “Remember our faces.” I crouched there stricken with fear as the dead guards marched endlessly seeking vengeance.
I woke up hours later with the sun in my eyes. I tried to move but pain shot up in my arm and shoulder. I tried to grab it but my left hand was stopped by the handcuffs which chained me to the bed. I was hoping this was a new dream, but it wasn’t. I lay motionless as I let a wave of grief, guilt, and regret envelope my entire being. I didn’t know if I would be charged with anything, and it really didn’t matter at this point. I was a reason that those men got killed. If I just let it go and walked away maybe they would still be alive. But no, my dumb drunken ass had to go and get in their face, filling in for Marcus.
I thought of my dream and the first tears of the day began to well up. Those dead guards will be marching towards me till the day I die, every night during every sleep. I am certain of this.