Lynette told me to drive her to Tompkins Square on Friday night so she could score some pot. This was during the early nineties, the very last days when New York was Scorsese City. You could buy almost anything you wanted off the street as long as you had the money and the connections.
“Stay in the car,” Lynette said as I pulled up alongside the curb next to the park. “I don’t want you screwing this up.”
It was all too easy to picture me screwing things up. The first time I’d ever seen a drug deal, I had a knife pulled on me. Two men were swapping cocaine for cash in front of a brownstone and as I walked by I blurted out how this was so cool. The dealer snapped open a switchblade and I burst into the gutter, chasing after a taxi that was cruising down the block.
With this incident fresh on my mind, I agreed to remain in the car and watch Lynette through the rearview mirror. As a twenty-year-old bumpkin from Bensonhurst, I couldn’t help but admire how she swaggered along the sidewalk, strutting towards the dreadlocked guy slouching next to the park gate. As she passed him a roll of bills, I wondered if I would ever learn to handle myself the way she did, maneuvering through a world that I only knew through Velvet Underground albums and edgy films from the seventies.
With her leather jacket and dark frizzy hair, Lynette seemed to be the pissed-off love-child of a dispirited hippie and an undersized punk. It was an image she played-up in her photography. She had built a sizable collection—and a budding career—by capturing those final moments of a decadent world that was withering away in the light of imminent gentrification.
She was chatting with the drug dealer when his partner emerged from the park with a plastic bag. After she inspected the merchandise, Lynette began gesturing with both hands and shaking her head. Finally, she tossed the bag back to the dreadlocked man and retreated to the car.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said.
Lynette’s hands were balled-up into fists as we passed a series of low rise brick buildings with boarded-up windows. When we stopped at the light, she reached into her pocket for a cigarette.
It was all too easy to picture me screwing things up. The first time I’d ever seen a drug deal, I had a knife pulled on me. Two men were swapping cocaine for cash in front of a brownstone and as I walked by I blurted out how this was so cool.
“I asked for smoke,” Lynette said. “They gave me a bag of crack.”
“I told him I want pot not crack,” Lynette said. “So the guy tells me I should have asked for weed.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle as the light changed.
“Your slang is out of date,” I said.
“It’s not funny,” Lynette told me. “I’ve always asked for smoke.”
Lynette took a deep drag of the cigarette.
“I can’t believe they didn’t give me my money back,” she said.
“You asked a drug dealer for a refund?”
“I don’t see why not,” she said. “He didn’t have what I wanted.”
I laughed again and Lynette smacked me on the shoulder as I pulled into a space across from her building. The force of the slap was not terribly hard but it was strong enough to convince me not to ask if she wanted company that night.
“Even I know not to ask a drug dealer for money,” I said.
Lynette flicked her cigarette into the ashtray.
“So you’re a fucking expert now?”
I could have pointed out my sudden doubts about her own street credentials, but I held my tongue. I said nothing as she got out of the car and started towards her building. Iron gates covered most of the windows and there were traces of graffiti on the brick façade.
As Lynette sidled around a homeless guy sleeping on the front steps, I wondered how she would react if I leaned out the window and shouted that maybe neither one of us was such a fucking expert at anything. She might have laughed at her own bullshit or she might have never talked to me again. For now, it wasn’t worth the risk to find out.
With her stark silhouette of leather and denim framed by a doorway of rusting metal and cracked glass, Lynette still looked to me like a character in a Scorsese movie, a supporting actress from Taxi Driver or Mean Streets. All I could do was stare like a star-struck film student, watching her move from scene to scene, letting her show me how it was done.