City Boy

He was almost six years old when I met him, that first day in the shabby living room. I was disappointed that he was so young; I had hoped for one of the older kids because I had a degree in secondary English and was, in fact, on the Board of Education’s list for substitute teaching. But I was usually too hung over when they called to offer me an assignment. He was big for his age, tall, wiry, with a blonde buzz cut and huge blue eyes fringed by black lashes, wearing too-big jeans, a too-tight red and blue striped rugby shirt and a wary, watchful expression. He folded his arms across his chest when I tried to shake hands and rolled his eyes when I suggested that we sit down and get acquainted, as many of the other volunteers were doing. I learned that he liked dogs and snakes but hated cats and alligators; liked peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches but hated grape jelly; and loved pizza and brownies but hated string beans. When time was up, he still wouldn’t shake my hand, and when I said I was looking forward to seeing him next week, he shook his head as though I was an idiot.

Sister K encouraged the volunteers to visit at least weekly, if possible, “to give the children something to look forward to.” I went every week but I never had the impression that Stevie looked forward to seeing me or spending time with me; he still refused to shake hands, but agreed to play game after game of checkers, at which he excelled.

I worried that he didn’t like me. I tried discussing it with the writer, who sighed, said, “Ah, kids,” and turned his attention to the Mets game on television. Ophelia, my co-worker at the Yiddish Actors' Association, thought I was nuts.

“He’s a kid, for Christ sake, who cares if he likes you,” she said. She wasn’t enthusiastic about the volunteer program anyway, because on the days I participated I wasn’t available to smoke a joint or go drinking at the nameless bar on the corner. Ophelia had grown up in the projects, surrounded by single mothers and screaming kids, and wanted no part of it.

I discussed it with Dixie, one of the dancers from the Pantheon Palace whom I’d come to know from going up on the roof to smoke cigarettes; Meyer’s wife had died of emphysema and he forbade smoking in the office. Dixie was tall and slender with a great mane of curly brown hair, and always wore killer heels and blood red lipstick. I had mentioned my involvement in the volunteer program casually, but she became interested and asked me how it was going more frequently than I would have expected.

“Whyntcha bring him a toy or something, something little boys like, you know, a GI Joe doll or something,” she suggested. But we weren’t allowed to bring presents for the kids; Sister K said we shouldn’t try to buy their affections with bribes.

Dixie wrinkled her nose. “What kind a half-assed rule is that?” she asked. “Kids love presents, shit, who doesn’t? But listen to me,” she said, wistfully, with a self-deprecating laugh, “like I know what the fuck I’m talking about.” She was bathed in the musky heat of Indian summer that surrounded the city, a rose and golden glow that illuminated her pale skin and wild hair as she stood against the backdrop of the broken sign that advertised, “Girls! Girls! Girls!”, a blurred invitation to men with no place to go and nobody to hold them.