The Paperback Writer Of Central Park
by Jacqueline Woods (Pen name Stella Brians)
Copyright 2016, Stella Brians
The Far Edge Of Summer, 1984
When summer ended in 1984, I completed my young adulthood and merged into the lone wanderer that had always been inside. I left when my family was out at a folk concert on the green. Into my green duffel bag went all of my favorite clothes and cassette tapes, my walkman, my notebooks. My new life. I was eighteen years old and in love with my poetry and Cat Stevens. In love with literature, music, and world art. Heavy Metal was my lover, and I lived on my own side of the tracks. Whenever I talked about New York City my mother would get irritated, and when I went to work I daydreamed about what it would be like. On September 7th, 1984, I quit my job and took a train to one of the dirtiest cities in the world to live my dream as a starving writer. When I first got there, to my inexperienced eye it was like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I went to my arranged hostel to put away my things before going across the street to call my therapist. He agreed, this was the best thing I could have done.
I remember the first day of fall in 1990 better than any day of my past, and cherish it because all fond memories are important regardless of how significant. I was twenty four years old, and just coming off of a subway to 110th street in upper Manhattan. My long auburn brown hair fell to my shoulders, and my lengthy side bangs covered my right eye. In all these years since, my hair style hasn’t changed. With my duffel bag slung over one shoulder I climbed up the stairs and into the evening, my dark green eyes watching the sunrise. I stood there while others rushed past me to their jobs, their wives and children, to their flats. I had none of these things, but I was happier than those I observed.
I had my lunch at a small health food cafe called Cheese N Stuff. Cheese N Stuff also sold groceries to take home which I only did when I had money. That morning, I ate a fresh egg and spinach sandwich with the free coffee that came with it. Not only was it delicious, but good for me. I needed the nutrients to stay strong and healthy because I didn’t have any health insurance. To my memory, the cafe was sunny inside and smelled like peanuts and sunflower seeds. The menu was handwritten on a chalkboard, as was the quote of the day. That day it was one by John Lennon, who had died ten years before.
Before I left, I used the bathroom to recount the money in my wallet, three hundred dollars. It was all I had to my name, but enough for two more weeks in a hostel and one, maybe two meals a day. I walked to the nearest phone booth and called the list of hostels I kept in one of my notebooks. There was a list of about twenty that I frequented, and usually at least one would be available to accommodate me. I picked up the receiver, still cold from the early morning air and wiped the mouthpiece with my sleeve. Next, I dialed the number and listened to it ring and ring.
“Hello, Swan Park Hostel.”
“Hello there, this is Elizabeth Stutton, and I was wondering if you had a bed open for two weeks?”
“Two weeks, hmm, let me check the books. Hang on.”
I remembered by hearing the voice that the man speaking was shorter than I was and smelled like cigars. He never said anything unless spoken to, and he liked to read maps.
“Yeah honey, we have one bed if you’re okay with being on the top floor.”
“Sure, that’s fine. Hold it for me okay? I’ll be there in half an hour.”
“Yeah, yeah. You still payin’ in full?”
“Yes. See you soon.”
I power walked to the hostel, because even if he said he was going to hold it for me that didn’t mean he would. Swan Park Hostel was one of the better hostels because it had class to it and the water was always warm for showers. It was an extended stay so I could have stayed for longer but I didn’t know if I would have the money. I had two more stories to mail to the magazine I wrote to, and they were long ones. Maybe worth five hundred each, which would give me a while at the hostel if I was paid quickly. While I walked, I passed mothers pushing baby strollers, businessmen, beggars on the street. When you are so accustomed to New York City, nothing seems out of the ordinary and all the people, objects, and colors blur together. Out of breath, I reached the hostel in twenty minutes and pulled open the heavy French style doors.
Once I was inside, I was surrounded by the usual overall atmosphere of this place. I looked down at my feet to see the floors I remembered, so shiny you could nearly see your own reflection. Withered potted plants sat by the doors and on coffee tables, and the unforgettable jazz music played overhead. The lighting had gold overtones, causing people to seem as if they had yellow skin. The short man who I had spoken to on my phone, glanced at me and said,
“Elizabeth Sutton, room 130, two hundred and thirteen dollars.”
I frowned at him, and asked if the price had gone up.
“Reservations are cheaper, last minutes are expensive. You want the room or not?”
I bit my lip and thought for a moment before agreeing. He was right, and it would be the same everywhere because that was how they made their money. I would just have to eat one meal a day for a while, which was okay because I was overweight anyway. After he was paid and I was all set, I went up to my room to look at it and see the kind of people I had to share with. Like most of the rooms in hostels, depending on the size, there were two or three bunks. This one was smaller and had two bunks, three of the beds occupied with either people or stuff. An Asian man slept on the top bunk of the first, a heavy set woman on the bottom of the second. The third bed was another top and had someone’s crap all over it. As quietly as possible, I sat on my bed and gave it a thoughtful bounce while thinking of what I was going to do that day. I was god awful tired from not sleeping the night before, but I had errands to run and a novel to write.
I went to the closest laundromat and one that I frequented besides. It was one of the five that I used and it was called Sunny Suds. Regardless of the name, there was nothing sunny about it. Homeless people, women with screaming children, and other shady individuals, were the regular clientele. The Tv was usually turned to a game show channel, and everything was so dirty that I suspected the only clean places were the insides of the washers and dryers. The reason I went there was because the prices were what I could afford and they gave you free soap. After emptying my messenger bag, I put in my one load of laundry and listened to my walkman.
From there I walked thirty blocks to central park where I would work until dinner time. The park was far away enough from the caustic noise and throngs of people, and if you secluded yourself people were less likely to talk to you. All of these reasons, aside from the natural beauty of Central Park were why I chose this as my place to scribble away in my notebooks. For a year I had been working on a novel, which was a fictionalized story based on my own experiences as a person. I worked very hard to ensure that I didn’t sound like Holden Caulfield, or to lose myself in a tangent because there were so many beautiful things in life that I had been a part of and I didn’t want to mar what I was trying to convey with complaints.
My favorite place to write was on a bench, underneath the Alice In Wonderland statue. The city had many amazing statues and that was only one of them. I used to kid that Alice was my literary muse, and I spent many a sunny afternoon sitting next to her. People would often look my way and not think anything of me, a chubby twenty something woman in thrift store dresses and high top sneakers. I was eccentric and if people didn’t like it, that was okay too. I felt peaceful towards everyone, yet I could also find the humor in many of them. Having that attitude helped me live in the city and survive the way I did.
That particular day was when I met Sarah, which was why I said earlier that I will cherish all fond memories. I had been sitting and writing for about two hours when I felt someone looking at me. At first, I thought it was a child wanting to get closer to the large statue and to regard the strange grown up warily. Instead when I looked up I saw the heavy set woman who had been asleep in my room prior. She had short black hair and tan skin, and wore ripped jeans paired with an oversized Sid Vicious shirt. On her hands, she wore studded gloves, and on her feet combat boots. She smiled at me, and I smiled back, raising an eyebrow. “Sid killed Nancy.” I teased.
“I’m Sarah.” She said, in a British accent.
“I’m Liz.” I told her.
“We’re staying in the same room. What are you doing in New York City?” She asked, sitting down next to me, on the bench,
“I live here, I’m a writer. What do you do?”
“I’d rather like to live here myself, I’m trying to get a green card and stay. For now, I’m visiting..It’s so lovely here.” She told me, wistful.
I chuckled at so sweet she was, despite her outside demeanor. She almost seemed naïve, but I recognized a dreamer when I saw one because so was I.
“It is really lovely here. I like getting lost here, it’s refreshing.” My hair fell in my face, and I brushed it away so that there wasn’t a curtain between us.
“May I ask what you’re writing about?”
“I don’t reveal too much to people, but because we live together, I will tell you that it’s about my experiences as a person.”
“Jolly good, then. I should write an autobiography as well.”
I cracked another smile and said, “It’s fictionalized, but carries the same themes and messages that I want to share with others.”
She nodded, and was quiet for a while until she asked if I wanted to get a bite to eat with her. I agreed, and mentally planned to have something small so as to adhere to my tight budget. We walked together to an outdoor café on the street, she ordered a meal and I ordered a coffee.
“You don’t eat much, yeah?” she asked me.
“Not typically, small appetite and all that. What do you do for a living, or for fun?” I expected her to say that she was part of a punk rock group, or an artist even.
“I’m disabled, so I receive checks from that. Other than that I read alot, go to concerts.”
I nodded, and ran a hand through my long hair. “It’s nice to be so free, I wouldn’t have it any other way anymore.” I let my side bangs fall into my right eye, they never behaved anyway.
“How long have you been a starving artist?” she asked me, smiling. I warmed up to her in a way that I don’t to most people, she was unbelievably nice and open.
“For six wonderful years.” I told her. “I left home when I was eighteen, and have been making a living submitting my stories to magazines. It beats working for someone else.”
“ That’s pretty far out, mate. You want some of my lunch?” she asked me.
I returned to my work in Central Park, and she told me that she was going to head back to the hostel. I felt an odd sense of loneliness then, and I lost myself in my novel so that it didn’t gnaw at me. The later it became, the quieter the park got and before I knew it I was writing in the dark. I got up and stretched, ready to make my way home. It was later than I thought, and something told me I should have left earlier. I hurried back through the way I had come, and as I dreaded someone grabbed my arm.
A group of inner city men were huddled together in a thatch of grass hidden underneath some trees.
“Hey miss,” the one who had grabbed my arm began, “Do you have any coke for sale, maybe even weed?” He was a huge bear of a man, with arms like tree trunks.
“No, I don’t.” I answered sharply, ripping my arm away from him, and running towards the light coming from the street.
“Hey! Come back here cunt!” He yelled, gaining on me. I was smaller and faster, so I outran him and crossed the street with a flock of people.
I arrived back to the hostel very late, and exhausted beyond what was healthy. The elevator took me to the top floor, where I showered and afterword collapsed into bed and slept heavily for ten hours.
When I woke up, the Asian guy was gone and Sarah and the messy guy in the bunk above her were chatting. Ironically they were both British, and from London. As I remember he was quite handsome and fit, with light hair and blue eyes. He slept in his boxers which led to Sarah and I calling him ‘Boxer man.’ After he left and it was just us, she chided me good naturedly for sleeping as long as I had.
“I was falling over myself by the time I got here, and I knew that I took a shower but it was more like a dream to me.” I told her, laughing. We talked for awhile, and I found myself enjoying her company and melodic accent more and more.
“Well, I’m going to Soho for awhile. I was thinking we could go see a movie tonight?” she asked me, while she laced up her impossible boots.
“Sure. How about six or seven tonight? What’s even playing?” I asked.
“Full Metal Jacket. Looks like it’s going to be the bomb.” She said, heading out the door.
“Wait,” I called to her down the hall. “Which theater are we meeting at?”
“The next block over from this one. See you at seven.”
It wasn’t until noon that I got out the door and to the post office to mail my manuscripts to the magazine. From there I went back to Central Park and wandered around for awhile, not thinking about anything, just being. It put me in a peaceful state, but I had wandered so far that I found myself writing in a gazebo that overlooked a large score of trees whose leaves were turning the color of fire. Fall was always my favorite season; I loved the crisp air, the piles of leaves that gathered together in the streets for me to walk through, New York apple pies, and Halloween. Everyone seemed to calm down after summer died and the kids went back to school, and I liked that too. I sat in the gazebo for hours, my high top sneakers poking out from under my long jeans, hair a mess; as long as I had a notebook and a pen I felt a sense of immortality. I felt that if I could get my novel published my experiences as this androgynous person that most disregarded, through my words I could go on living forever. Of course, I knew death as imminent to all but this was my way of leaving my words behind. Elizabeth Stutton was here.
My life began in a small apartment in Hartford, Connecticut. My parents were married at the time, my mother was an Irish painter and my father was a French writer. At an early age I was exposed to the arts and literature because it was what made up the world that the three of us shared. We didn’t have much money, but it was a simple, happy life which is why that pathway was a natural one for me. I had an older brother from another marriage, who lived away, and a younger brother, Charlie.
As a person I was always very laid back, caring, and talented as an artist and a writer as my parents were, but inside I hated myself. People always told me how pretty I was, but how I just needed to lose the weight. I was socially awkward and kept to myself, causing me to be ostracized by my classmates. Because of this I felt alienated and ugly, so I created a world all my own and lived in it. It was much like a security tent and it worked until my teens. Things became more confusing when I discovered my bisexuality.
In my teenage years, I had unhealthy romantic relationships, parents who did not offer proper support for my worsening depression, and an older brother who made me feel bad about my weight and every decision that I ever made. I had trouble talking to girls, and my relationship with Allen was disastrous.
Concerned teachers contacted the school therapist, who became a dear friend and a close confidant. His name was Mark Kincade.
I sat on his sand colored sofa and told him how I felt about my parent’s divorce, my current abusive boyfriend, and how I felt worthless every day of my life and I didn’t want it to be that way anymore. He was short, stout man with blond hair, with a kind and funny disposition.
“I see that despite your shortcomings, Miss Elizabeth, that you are remarkably resilient and possess a positive attitude about life, but not about yourself and that is what worries me. You see yourself as separate from the world and you feel helpless to change your own. You have to follow what you love, no matter what your parents, brothers, or boyfriend thinks. Frankly, I think they are all uniquely detrimental to your personal growth.”
Mark and I were on the same wavelength, but I tried to please everyone. I starved myself to lose weight, took the job my boyfriend wanted me to rather than freelance as I planned to, and I felt dead inside and very angry. This lasted a year, and a week before graduation, I ended it with Allen, and used the money I had made to move to New York City and freelance. Mark was the first person I called when I got there.
“Hello, this is Mark Kincaid.”
“Mark…it’s Elizabeth. I made it here, to New York City.”
“Elizabeth, that’s..that’s awesome. I’m so glad you followed your dreams, that’s all I wanted for you. What changed to bring you to this point?”
“I left because I was living someone else’s desires, and not my own. Life felt meaningless for me. I rid myself of Allen, and wrote my family a letter as to how I felt and what my plan was.”
“That’s incredible, are you still going to write your novel?” He asked excitedly.
“Iv’e already started, and it’s going to be quite a story I think.”
“Send me a copy when you do finish? I wish you the best of luck, and..stay safe out there , ok kid?”
Being on my own in a world where no one seemed to notice me, I was able to gain back my positive outlook at life and eventually came to love myself. I gave up on trying to control my weight, and lost a few pounds from simply traipsing through New York. I fell in love with the my beautiful auburn brown hair, my pale porcelain skin, and sweet features. I loved how I could play a song on the guitar by just hearing it, and how much I could care for people when I did let them in. What I came to love most about myself, was what set me apart from everyone, my originality. I never was another brainless, man hating woman, who lived in a cottage by the sea and expected everything to be done for her. Nor was I unfeeling or unable to understand the pain and suffering of others. Now that I had come into myself, I wanted to help others from all backgrounds and gender identities who suffered as I had. What set me apart from others most obviously was the following; I was an independent individual who spoke to the spirits in the wind and of the earth, and preferred my own company to those of others. I knew that I was no better than anyone else, and allowed that to humble me. There was one thing very clear to me;
We are all on a different life path and need to love one another.
Sarah and I met at the Roosevelt Street Theater at 7:15, as she was running late. Luckily, the film started at 7:30, and the tickets were affordable. I had seen Full Metal Jacket back when it first came out in 1987, but I knew that some theaters replayed movies that did exceedingly well. I wasn’t sure how available that movie was in England, which could have been a factor for Sarah never seeing it before. She gave me a hug, which I gave her back quite surprised. I haven’t been hugged once since my move to New York City.
She offered to buy the popcorn which I thought was very nice of her, and we entered the theater with an enormous tub of it set to watch one of my favorite Kubrick films. We sat in the farthest seats from the screen and put our feet up on the backs of the chairs in front of us. During the dancing popcorn boxes and hotdog men urging patrons to get a snack before the movie started, we told each other about our day and played air guitar to songs by the Sex Pistols. When the movie finally did play, she enjoyed it but was scared when Private Pyle shot himself.
The next morning I received a call from Blue Footed Pigeon, the magazine I had sent my work to. They demanded that I take a plane to Los Angeles for an in person meeting.
“I regret to tell you that I lack the means at this moment to go to L.A., but I would be happy to do an interview over the phone…”
“Ms. Stutton, you don’t understand, you are one of our best writers and the head of the magazine would like to speak to you in person. This would be very good for your career.”
“Is there a chance for me to meet with you in a month, perhaps? I should be able to..”
“We’ve been paying you for six years, and none of that money can be put towards a plane ticket?”
“I have a very unique situation.”
“You know, lady, you aren’t going to get anywhere in life with this attitude.”
“I am excited to meet with the head of the magazine, but I cannot afford….”
The woman on the other line hung up on me, and I realized that I wouldn’t have any income for several weeks, so I would have to submit to completely new magazines.
I spent days printing out stories and mailing them out to different places for approval, which ate much of my funds. I threw myself into my work, and slept very little which is an easy thing to do in New York City. Sarah was kind to me and brought me bits of her food, half eaten muffins, leftovers from god knew where. The days flew by, and before I knew it I was sleeping in the Port Authority bus terminal because it was safer than the streets. It became impossible to write, and I burned out.
One afternoon it came down to it; I had no money in my bank account, and two dollars at hand. I was sick of sleeping in the bus station, and I hadn’t had a shower in a week. Sarah and I had lost contact, and I felt extremely lonely and sad. I allowed myself a night of darkness, allowing the negative emotions to sweep over me and hopelessness to engulf me. I let it happen because before I could fully bring myself to carry on, I had to leave the dark behind to make way for the light.
Of all of the things I could have used my two dollars on, I used it to wash the clothes in my bag. They had started to reek and smell like body sweat and city scum and I couldn’t have that. At six a clock in the morning, I walked the endless blocks it took to get to Sunny Suds because it was the only place with a dollar wash and dry. I recall feeling very shaky, full of anxiety and not knowing where to go. So many thoughts ran through my mind, I could apply for food stamps, maybe even housing assistance—but the housing end of it defeated what I wanted to do completely. That was when I started to think, was it time for a permanent home, and if so how would I afford it?
With no money left and feeling very weak, I ended up at a bookstore across the street from the Laundromat, so I could have a quiet place to sit and think. I had seen a woman behind the desk upon coming in but had paid her very little attention as my mind was troubled. As I sat in a comfortable chair out of the way, I watched her near me with interest from across the store. She was a beautiful woman, with cocoa skin and silky hair that was kept underneath a headband. When she spoke her voice was mildly accented with a Southern drawl, and she was as friendly as could be.
“Can I help you find anything, honey chile? You look so tired.”
I smiled because there was a vast difference between her and the usual New Yorkers, who didn’t care if you were tired or dead.
“I am tired, but I’m not looking for anything at the moment. I like your book store though, everything is so well kept.”
“Do you like to read?” she asked me, sitting in a chair next to me, crossing one leg over the other.
“I love to read, I’m a writer actually.”
She raised a well manicured eyebrow and asked me what I wrote.
“I freelance short stories to magazines, and I’m also working on a novel. You are welcome to read some of the short stories, I have extra copies.”
“Yes, I would like to read them…I have a soft spot for young writers, I’m afraid.”
As soon as I gave her a few of my stories, the telephone behind the desk rang and her attention was shifted elsewhere. I was pleased that she took the stories with her and expressed interest in reading them. All I recall afterwards was falling asleep in the chair holding my bag and not waking up until the store closed.
The woman gently shook me, and told me she was closing the store for the night, would I like a place to stay? I hesitated at first, and then she added, “I read your stories, you’re…quite talented, young lady. Look, I have a room behind the store I use when I’m too tired to drive home. You can take it for now, there’s a shower too.”
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“How about, twenty percent of your sales? I want to publish your work.”
I stared at her open mouthed, unable to believe her, thinking that she wanted to lock me up somewhere and torture me.
Because I was so tired that day, and I hurt all over and smelled…I stayed in the small room she had offered me. There is nothing nicer than a warm shower and soap, and being able to shave your legs, or just being able to feel human again. Sleeping in my own room, safe and locked away from the city was even nicer. The next morning, I emerged from that room a new person and she asked me to have coffee with her.
“My name is Eartha, and I have owned this little bookshop for twenty years. I used to be a teacher in Louisiana, but I missed the city and discovered that I didn’t like working with children all that much. What’s your name, where are you from?”
The cafe ambiance filled the room with the sound of steaming milk and the buzz of chatter, so I strained to hear her.
“I’m Elizabeth, and I have been living in New York for six years out of hostels, just writing and trying to survive on that. I didn’t ever want to do anything but write, so perhaps that is the problem. I do enjoy what I do, enjoy the freedom. I would say that I understand how Huck Finn felt, loving adventure and resisting domestication.”
Eartha laughed melodiously, and then took a drink of her very expensive latte. I had ordered a plain old coffee with sugar and half and half, as a means to wake up. She had also bought us muffins, which were the freshest I had ever had up to that point.
“Thank you, really. I can’t even begin to tell you how you have helped me. I don’t know what to say other than that.”
She shrugged as if it were nothing, and simply said “I really believe in your work. I feel as though I know you from your stories, you really tell a lot through your New York wanderings and what you have encountered through your emancipation from others and complete dedication to your work. How you….up and left, and lived in these hostels, hand to mouth on your own. Not to mention, how extremely brave I think you are. I think, Elizabeth that it is time for you to settle down—just a little bit—so you can have a solid peace of mind to work.”
“I think that it is time as well.” I answered simply.
That was how my homelessness ended, and how I came to publish my first novel.