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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

King of Norway

I watched the Towers fall from Union Square. It’s the sound I remember most. And the smell. A couple of weeks later I wrote this story.

Being in a rock and roll band is like getting in bed with a rattlesnake; you don't get much sleep and there's a good chance you're going to get bit in the ass. At least that's the way the King taught me to see it. That night we rocked. Jerry the drummer found just the right pocket for the groove; Larry on bass locked to it like a leech; Tom sang from way down deep somewhere, straight from his soul to the ears of the rocking and bopping crowd; and I played guitar, laid out hooks honed to a razor sharp edge. The name of the band was ‘The Jacks’ (actually the name of the band was ‘Jack and the Jackets,’ but everybody called us ‘The Jacks’) and the lower east side of NYC was our playground. We lived on those streets, fed off the buzz of them, the people and the cars and just the whole thing ramped up twenty-four hours a day. But it was the middle of the night that belonged to us. After the gig we went to a place called the Hudson Deli. The deli wasn't anywhere near the Hudson River, but we gave the guy behind the counter four bucks each, and he piled enough pastrami on our plates to keep us going for a day. Best deal in town. Wolfing down pastrami and beer at 3 A.M. meant you had to walk it off if you were ever going to get some sleep; that and the adrenalin rush from playing maybe the best set of our lives. After we finished at the Hudson, we stood on the corner and Tom asked if I was going home. I shook my head. "I got to walk for awhile. I'll see you guys later." Tom reached into his pocket and pulled out a five. "Oh yeah? Here, give him this. It's going to get cold soon." Larry did the same thing. Jerry the drummer didn't have any money. "I got to pay the rent," he said. "Look, maybe he wants this." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a little American flag pin. He said: "That's the kind of thing he might like." "Yeah? He collects things so maybe you're right. I'll tell him you guys said hello." I hoisted my guitar on my back and started heading south. I was alone, which is the way I liked it after an ear shattering night of rock and roll, but I wasn't wandering. I was looking for my friend, the King of Norway. There's something about New York City in the middle of the night. The streets are empty (the farther south I walked, the emptier the streets became) but in the shadows, in the corners, just at the edge of things, lived the ghosts. I walked down 6th feeling the ghosts there. The traffic lights blinked red and green up and down empty avenues; the shops were shuttered; against a halogen sky, the spires of buildings stood sentinel in the night. I walked on. I heard them, all the voices and cries and tears and whispers ever uttered. They were always there, caught in the canyons of glass and steel, all the dreams and despairs of the city. They never went away. The city was too alive to ever die. Down by Canal I met Mr. Lee, the Chinese guy who ran the restaurant over on Mott. He was trying to entice pigeons into a shoebox with some birdseed and a string. If the birds got too close, Mr. Lee pulled the string and somebody was going to eat Moo Shu Chicken the next night. Only it wasn't going to be chicken. "No, I ain't seen the man nowhere," Mr. Lee said. "You come over to the restaurant and eat." On the steps of the courthouse I sat down next to Annie. She was mending a dress. "The Jacks play tonight?" Annie asked. I told her about the gig. Annie wasn't that interested. She listened, then said: "I hear the Mission Church is arranging an outing for folks like me. Isn't that something? I'm living here on the streets and they want to take me some place outside. They should arrange an inning." Annie thought that was pretty funny. I did too. I finally found the King of Norway sitting on a bench in the park next to City Hall. He looked up and said: "You got any smokes?" His voice was a tobacco scarred rasp; he was wearing layers of shirts and sweaters and coats; an old beat-up Yankee cap was pulled down to his ears; around his waist he'd coiled a collection of yellow ties, like the Wall Street guys wore in the eighties; on his feet he wore a pair of black Army boots. He wasn't dressed for the sixty-degree weather we were having that night, he just wore everything he owned. It didn't matter if it was hot or cold, summer or winter, every time I saw the King he was dressed the same way. A man who doesn't have a home, doesn't have a closet, that's what he does. I sat down and we lit up, started right in talking, which was the way things were with the King. Actually, mostly he did the talking and I did the listening. "You play the music tonight? Don't waste my time if you weren't playing." By that he meant had we acted like jerks, or had we put down our heads and really played. I told him we locked it down tight, people danced into a rock and roll frenzy. He said: "You doing something, you got to do it right. Ain't no use doing nothing unless you take it all the way." The King was always saying stuff like that. That's why I walked around some nights looking for him. Rich people living high off the ground didn’t get it. They looked down, saw these folks living on the streets, and thought they were all loony birds. Truth is some of them were the smartest people I knew. The way the world looked to them, well, it's all stripped down when you're living in the gutter. Makes it easier to see things the way they really are. The King kept talking and I nodded my head and kept listening. "You know what I saw today? I saw a big woman take a fall. Right over by the tunnel. There she was walking and not watching her feet - man, she was so big she probably couldn't even see her feet - and down she went. Her bag come loose and her groceries were flying everywhere. Happened right in front of me. So I gathered it all up and gave her a tug off the deck and she gave me some fruit and five dollars. How about that?" Everything the King owned was in an A&P shopping cart. It wasn't just thrown in there, everything had its place. On the rack underneath he kept the empty cans and bottles he could recycle for cash; toward the front was his library of books he'd found on the street, but he was particular. "I see a picture on the cover of a book - a dragon or a good looking man holding a good looking woman - I see something like that, I leave it where it is." Toward the back of the cart were items he found but had no intention of keeping. He never let anything go until he found the right person to give it to. Everybody had something from the King. The cops? A garden gnome they kept in the men's room at the precinct. The priest at Saint Mary's? A complete set of Brighton Beach teacups. I had a Mickey Mantle baseball glove with the curious inscription: 'For the Count - Catch More Than Miss.' Taped to the handle of the shopping cart was a Norwegian flag. That’s how he got the name the King of Norway. The flag was just something he'd picked up one night in a dumpster, but he liked the name. "I bought us some soda with the five bucks the big women gave me. I'm figuring you're going to show up sooner or later. I got us diet, but that was a mistake, so I went back to the guy and he let me change it. You need the sugar out here on the streets. You feel like walking? Or you too beat from all that screeching and hollering?" If the King wanted to walk, I walked. So we made our way west toward the river, down Chambers Street. The wheels on his cart squeaked as we walked. During the day you wouldn't notice something like that, but in the middle of the night those wheels squeaked off the buildings and made a racket. We walked across West Street, over to a pier that jutted into the Hudson. The King often spent the night there. The cops left him alone and he was close to a subway stop where he could work the commuters in the morning for dimes. "I don't ask for money," he once told me. "Those morning folk are in such a hurry, they're always dropping change. You got to keep your eyes open for things like that." As we got close to river I reached into my shirt pocket and fished out Jerry's American flag pin. The King said: "He gave that to you for me?" He pinned it to the lapel of his outer coat. The river was like glass, the city towers reflected on the surface. High in the sky a big jet made its way east, maybe heading to Norway or England, someplace far. In the middle of the river a tug pulled a long flat barge toward the garbage dumps on Staten Island. The King said: "We got so much stuff made, we don't need to make anymore. We just throw it all away and make more stuff. That make sense to you? You know what I think? You and I should get all our money together and buy us a piece of land on that Staten Island garbage dump. How much they going to charge you for something like that? They're going to give you something like that dirt-cheap. Then we dig down and take all that stuff back out. We could be rich doing something like that." The King went on about getting rich, and how if he ever got rich he was going to buy a farm up the river someplace, far from the urban streets, but still on the river that flowed by the city. "That way I'll stay connected to the streets." I smiled at that. The King loved the city just like we all did. I said: "But you're taking your shopping cart, right?" "Everything I got, I got in this cart. Why would I leave it behind? You going someplace and leaving your guitar behind? I don't think so. Even though that thing is probably going to kill you." Rock and roll was a dangerous thing to the King. But not just rock and roll. "Anything you burn for is going to burn you. That's just the way life can be. I ain't saying it's always going to happen, but you got to handle passion just the right way." The King liked to dance, so I took my guitar out of its case and started playing. He laughed and began moving his feet. He raised his hands into the air and slowly worked his way around the pier in a wide circle, dancing as I played and encouraging me with: "That's it," and, "You got the beat just right now," and, "Boy, you know how to play that thing." I've played music for years, played gigs big and small, made some money too, but I never enjoyed playing more then when I laid down a groove and watched the King of Norway. The next morning I woke up at three in the afternoon. It wasn't an alarm clock that got me out of bed, or the fact I was hungry and needed a gallon of coffee. It was the smell. I opened the shades in my apartment and expected to see a pile of tires burning in the street. The air was choked with what I took to be fumes from rubber. Or maybe it was a big electrical fire. Something was going on. One look at the street told me that. There were people out there, just like always, but the way they stood, or maybe it was the fact nobody was doing much talking, something was wrong. I got dressed and made my way downstairs, figuring to get breakfast before I did anything else. The Jacks were playing that night and I needed to eat. Then I'd get back upstairs and give my fingers a work out, maybe write a new song. The day was wide open, but there wasn't much of the day left. In fact, the day was over. Four hours earlier the big towers had crumbled. There's been a lot of speeches made since that day, everybody running around and fussing about things. The city got back on its feet because that's what the city does. These days they're talking about some kind of big memorial with lots of names carved in the walls, and fountains and museums, and all sorts of stuff. You talk to people and they get all wound up about it. I never saw the King of Norway again. That pier where I left him was right across the street from Tower Number Two. The subway stop he was going to work in the morning was in the basement. I like to think maybe after I left he decided to take his shopping cart and head north, work something out for himself far from the concrete. But it's hard to imagine the King of Norway living up north with the birds and the trees. One day I'm going to walk down there and take a look at what they worked out. I'm going to linger over the names just like everybody else, the names there and the names not. And I'm going to sit down and take out my guitar and remember the night I made the King of Norway dance.


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