8 million stories: Little Curly

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:13

    I got my nickname from a street character one spring night in the mid-1990s. I’d been entertaining clients at the theater.When the show let out, I put them in a cab then cut through a parking lot mid-block to avoid the post-theater crowds and started my walk home.There he was, turning out of the alley.

    “Looking good, Little Curly,” he said. I’d seen him many times before. He’d come out of the shadows, wiry, with cocoacolored skin and wearing a khaki jacket and dark pants that blended into the Midtown crowd.We were probably about the same age, though worlds apart. He was one of the fixtures of my old Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, before the glass towers and trendy restaurants, before the improved street lighting.

    Although he called me “Little Curly,” that’s how I came to think of him whenever I’d see him. Often he’d be around Novotel on my block, West 52nd Street. The Deutschemark was strong, the dollar weak and the streets were filled with brash—it was the year of the invasion of the rude German tourists. The Novotel, their hotel of choice, must have had a big surcharge on international calls, because groups of Germans would clog the street, talking loudly, standing three across, waiting to use the pay phone by the corner off Broadway. I noticed Little Curly would be watching the tourists surreptitiously and intently as they made phone calls from the booth near the corner. I wondered if he was an undercover cop. I noticed that he’d slip away when the gregarious doorman came out of the revolving door in front of the hotel.

    I was walking on 10th Avenue once and saw lots of cabbies, their vehicles parked, chatting and waiting for something in an amorphous semblance of a line. Curious, I stopped for a moment to watch.Then I noticed Little Curly, beyond the front of the line in the shadows by the fence on the next corner, collecting money from the cabbies before they took a turn at the phone, presumably to call their loved ones back home. They looked so happy when they walked away that I had to smile along with them. Little Curly knew I saw him. His eyes flickered in my direction for a second before he looked at his next customer. I tried to figure out how he was able to replicate the tourists’ phone card numbers—a combination of keen observation and a good memory.

    After that Little Curly would greet me occasionally, when it didn’t interfere with business. I’d see him selling weed outside Roseland. Once, I was walking with a friend from out of town who slowed at the offer of “smoke, smoke.” “Not for you,” Little Curly said, refusing the sale. On the corner one evening I ran into a former salesman from the radio station where I’d

    worked. He was a heavy, pasty man, a practitioner of office politics and the worst kind of bad mouthing. As I forced an insincere greeting I noticed someone moving behind him. Little Curly caught my eye, then looked down, I gesture I took to be apologetic. I shrugged, not really caring if the salesman’s pocket was picked. “Watch yourself around here.You don’t want to be an easy mark,” I said to the salesman before we parted ways. I was an easy mark soon after that. There’d been a going-away party for a beloved colleague at B. Smith’s. I was sad, tipsy and just recovering from a medical procedure that left my innards sore and made walking painful. I was glad for the fresh air when I stepped out to Eighth Avenue after the party ended. I started to walk the five blocks home, taking it slow, teetering a bit on my heels. As I approached the dark stretch by Worldwide Plaza, I felt like I was being watched. My heart beat faster, delivering the impact of that last drink that I really shouldn’t have had. I sped up past the stairs of an old brownstone to the corner. Out of the shadows, from a stoop, he appeared. “I got your back, Little Curly,” he said.The light changed and as I crossed over to the east side of the street I glanced behind me. He was shadowing me home. I left the neighborhood several years back, and hadn’t seen him since. I had taken the day off work to do some early holiday shopping, taking advantage of one of Macy’s sales.

    I was going up the old wooden escalator, looking at the striated wood steps and my worn shoes. I felt someone looking at me. When I looked up I saw him, at the top of the down escalator. He held up his Macy’s bag. “Hey, Little Curly—got some gifts for my girl. A real steal,” he said holding up his shopping bag. “I’m getting them gift wrapped.” I laughed at his remark, and imagined he’d be proud to show his receipt to the gift-wrapping clerk.

    “Happy Holidays,” I said.And I meant it.