Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Manhattan Noir

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Mystery writing titan Lawrence Block takes a bite into Manhattan crime.

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Excerpt from “If You Can’t Stand The Heat” by Lawrence Block, from Manhattan Noir

(Clinton)

She felt his eyes on her just about the time the bartender placed a Beck’s coaster on the bar and set her dry Rob Roy on top of it. She wanted to turn and see who was eyeing her, but remained as she was, trying to analyze just what it was she felt. She couldn’t pin it down physically, couldn’t detect a specific prickling of the nerves in the back of her neck. She simply knew she was being watched, and that the watcher was a male.

It was, to be sure, a familiar sensation. Men had always looked at her. Since adolescence, since her body had begun the transformation from girl to woman? No, longer than that. Even in childhood, some men had looked at her, gazing with admiration and, often, with something beyond admiration.

In Hawley, Minnesota, thirty miles east of the North Dakota line, they’d looked at her like that. The glances followed her to Red Cloud and Minneapolis, and now she was in New York, and, no surprise, men still looked at her. She lifted her glass, sipped, and a male voice said, “Excuse me, but is that a Rob Roy?”

He was standing to her left, a tall man, slender, well turned out in a navy blazer and gray trousers. His shirt was a button-down, his tie diagonally striped. His face, attractive but not handsome, was youthful at first glance, but she could see he’d lived some lines into it. And his dark hair was lightly infiltrated with gray.

“A dry Rob Roy,” she said. “Why?”

“In a world where everyone orders Cosmopolitans,” he said, “there’s something very pleasingly old-fashioned about a girl who drinks a Rob Roy. A woman, I should say.”

She lowered her eyes to see what he was drinking.

“I haven’t ordered yet,” he said. “Just got here. I’d have one of those, but old habits die hard.” And when the barman moved in front of him, he ordered Jameson on the rocks. “Irish whiskey,” he told her. “Of course, this neighborhood used to be mostly Irish. And tough. It was a pretty dangerous place a few years ago. A young woman like yourself wouldn’t feel comfortable walking into a bar unaccompanied, not in this part of town. Even accompanied, it was no place for a lady.”

“I guess it’s changed a lot,” she said.

“It’s even changed its name,” he said. His drink arrived, and he picked up his glass and held it to the light, admiring the amber color. “They call it Clinton now. That’s for DeWitt Clinton, not Bill. DeWitt was the governor awhile back, he dug the Erie Canal. Not personally, but he got it done. And there was George Clinton, he was the governor, too, for seven terms starting before the adoption of the Constitution. And then he had a term as vice president. But all that was before your time.”

“By a few years,” she allowed.

“It was even before mine,” he said. “But I grew up here, just a few blocks away, and I can tell you nobody called it Clinton then. You probably know what they called it.”

“Hell’s Kitchen,” she said. “They still call it that, when they’re not calling it Clinton.”

“Well, it’s more colorful. It was the real estate interests who plumped for Clinton, because they figured nobody would want to move to something called Hell’s Kitchen. And that may have been true then, when people remembered what a bad neighborhood this was, but now it’s spruced up and gentrified and yuppified to within an inch of its life, and the old name gives it a little added cachet. A touch of gangster chic, if you know what I mean.”

“If you can’t stand the heat‹”

“Stay out of the Kitchen,” he supplied. “When I was growing up here, the Westies pretty much ran the place. They weren’t terribly efficient like the Italian mob, but they were colorful and bloodthirsty enough to make up for it. There was a man two doors down the street from me who disappeared, and they never did find the body. Except one of his hands turned up in somebody’s freezer on 53rd Street and Eleventh Avenue. They wanted to be able to put his fingerprints on things long after he was dead and gone.”

“Would that work?”

“With luck,” he said, “we’ll never know. The Westies are mostly gone now, and the tenement apartments they lived in are all tarted up, with stockbrokers and lawyers renting them. Which are you?”

“Me?”

“A stockbroker or a lawyer?”

She grinned. “Neither one, I’m afraid. I’m an actress.”

“Even better.”

“Which means I take a class twice a week,” she said, “and run around to open casting calls and auditions.”

“And wait tables?”

“I did some of that in the Cities. I suppose I’ll have to do it again here, when I start to run out of money.”

“The Cities?”

“The Twin Cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

They talked about where she was from, and along the way he told her his name was Jim. She was Jennifer, she told him. He related another story about the neighborhood‹he was really a pretty good storyteller‹and by then her Rob Roy was gone and so was his Jameson. “Let me get us another round,” he said, “and then why don’t we take our drinks to a table? We’ll be more comfortable, and it’ll be quieter.”

He was talking about the neighborhood.

“Irish, of course,” he said, “but that was only part of it. You had blocks that were pretty much solid Italian, and there were Poles and other Eastern Europeans. A lot of French, too, working at the restaurants in the theater district. You had everything, really. The UN’s across town on the East River, but you had your own General Assembly here in the Kitchen. Fifty-seventh Street was a dividing line; north of that was San Juan Hill, and you had a lot of blacks living there. It was an interesting place to grow up, if you got to grow up, but no sweet young thing from Minnesota would want to move here.” She raised her eyebrows at sweet young thing, and he grinned at her. Then his eyes turned serious and he said, “I have a confession to make.”

“Oh?”

“I followed you in here.”

“You mean you noticed me even before I ordered a Rob Roy?”

“I saw you on the street. And for a moment I thought . . .”

“What?”

“Well, that you were on the street.”

“I guess I was, if that’s where you saw me. I don’t . . . Oh, you thought‹”

“That you were a working girl. I wasn’t going to mention this, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way . . .” What, she wondered, was the right way?

“. . . because it’s not as though you looked the part, or were dressed like the girls you see out there. See, the neighborhood may be tarted up, but that doesn’t mean the tarts have disappeared.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“It was more the way you were walking,” he went on. “Not swinging your hips, not your walk, per se, but a feeling I got that you weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, or even all that sure where you were going.”

“I was thinking about stopping for a drink,” she said, “and not sure if I wanted to, or if I should go straight home.”

“That would fit.”

“And I’ve never been in here before, and wondered if it was decent.”

“Well, it’s decent enough now. A few years ago it wouldn’t have been. And even now, a woman alone‹”

“I see.” She sipped her drink. “So you thought I might be a hooker, and that’s what brought you in here. Well, I hate to disappoint you‹”

“What brought me in here,” he said, “was the thought that you might be, and the hope that you weren’t.”

“I’m not.”

“I know.”

“I’m an actress.”

“And a good one, I’ll bet.”

“I guess time will tell.”

“It generally does,” he said. “Can I get you another one of those?”

She shook her head. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said. “I was only going to come in for one drink, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do that. And I’ve had two, and that’s really plenty.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m afraid so. It’s not just the alcohol, it’s the time. I have to get home.”

“I’ll walk you.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary.”

“Yes, it is. Whether it’s Hell’s Kitchen or Clinton, it’s still necessary.”

“Well . . .”

“I insist. It’s safer around here than it used to be, but it’s a long way from Minnesota. And I suppose you get some unsavory characters in Minnesota, as far as that goes.”

“Well, you’re right about that.” At the door she added, “I just don’t want you to think you have to walk me home because I’m a lady.”

“I’m not walking you home because you’re a lady,” he said. “I’m walking you home because I’m a gentleman.”

The walk to her door was interesting. He had stories to tell about half the buildings they passed. There’d been a murder in this one, a notorious drunk in the next. And though some of the stories were unsettling, she felt completely secure walking at his side.

At her door he said, “Any chance I could come up for a cup of coffee?”

“I wish,” she said.

“I see.”

“I’ve got this roommate,” she said. “It’s impossible, it really is. My idea of success isn’t starring on Broadway, it’s making enough money to have a place of my own. There’s just no privacy when she’s home, and the damn girl is always home.”

“That’s a shame.”

She drew a breath. “Jim? Do you have a roommate?”



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