How It Began
Click the title below to read a short piece from Victor Harrington taking you back to the halcyon days of 1970’s New York City, when a certain confluence of circumstances led to the author beginning work on his first novel, Charmer Boy, Gypsy Girl.
"Grace In the Unintended"
I still remember those days. They were so very different from the ones in which I find myself living; those days before Starbucks and world of the Borg, a time before you and I could be joined to a phone device to become one operating system. A time when, on the avenue near my home, the soft treble sound of a clarinet and the igniting blast from a trumpet could be heard.
It was nighttime, and the vagabond musicians would begin to appear. They came from places as far away as Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, or from a few blocks east of Fifth Street and Second Avenue…Alphabet City, a wretched abode of hope, violence, love and drugs. And then there were those who resided in a hell for the forgotten and discarded, the roach and heroin infested Kenmore Hotel on Twenty-Third Street. They would leave their cell of a room and come with guitars and violins in hand.
A music man from Texas living in the Chelsea hotel appeared one day out of the blue, walking down Second Avenue wearing his black Stetson hat and holding onto his beat-up, brown, leather guitar case. Jimmy was his name. He’d claim his spot right near old man Schacht’s deli every Friday evening, just before sunset. The other vagabond musicians always conceded it to him; a professional courtesy.
Jimmy’s voice was sweet sounding and original. He liked very much to sing the songs Gentleman Jim Reeves made famous, but there was no musical bandwagon he wanted to jump onto, no one he wanted to sound like. Jimmy just wanted to sing and he took requests.
Being a kid brought up on Westerns like most of the rest of the world, I would ask Jimmy to sing the theme from High Noon, and only at sunset. There was a time in my life when I felt like Marshall Will Kane at the end of my rope, an aspiring writer in search of a perfect story, who had yet to stand up to his deepest fears: a poor man who was also a dad, and distraught that I might lose my daughter; fearful my wife would leave me.
And the words to the song Jimmy sang said it all: What would I do if you leave me?
Jimmy stood pressed against the wall of the deli, the colors of the sunset briefly crossing his face as he sang out a song of desperation, love, and courage. It always sounded so personal when Jimmy sang that song. It was quite the sight with the summer sun sinking behind us on Second Avenue. The stone and marble facades of the tenement buildings reflected brilliant colors of orange, purple and red, streamed across the sidewalk for only a moment, and then were gone.
Jimmy and everyone else knew of one another’s situation. It was much the same for all of them. And the thing is, they did not know each other. The bond that existed between them was the shared knowledge that the life now theirs was their choice, as much as it might have been, having been dealt a bad hand in life from which for some reason they had never recovered. In their hearts, they all knew they were masochists. They wanted no other life, not even one that might free them from the suffering of a broken heart, from addiction, or from poverty. To these vagabonds, life had a currency that would never see them in debt. They owed no one a thing. It was enough that their individual lives provided them with enlightenment, a variety of wealth unique unto itself.
Perhaps there is some truth to it. I’m still waiting to find out.
They would make the trek, arriving every evening to a place that, in their minds, was held in a state of grace, while at the same time seeking it for themselves. My home, the Lower East Side.
Summer’s midnight air drenched the innocent along with the guilty with every imagined vice and corruption, while the sidewalks swelled with the homeless, who were forgotten then as they are now. A pity. Every night I would see them. They would appear out of the shadows appearing in the middle of the block, or around the corner from Block Pharmacy on Second Avenue. A violinist or a trumpet man would place his hat on the sidewalk. Behind them was the wall of the Fillmore East Club, the voice of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison rocking its environs, a movie palace that in the Depression era of the 1930’s was a place where, fantasies were imagined, and where the magic of the movies was felt like it never would be felt again.
They were a symphony of vagabonds without a conductor. Each one of them would wait for the right moment to begin to play. The songs they played were familiar to me and to the denizens of the neighborhood. Listening to their music, I heard a blending of all of their life experiences: the sound of love, pain, fear, shame and death, the seminal emotions affecting life from which all other feelings are derived.
They never stayed; by definition, they were vagabonds, always on the move. One day you would just stop seeing one of them. It was that way with Jimmy.
Where was I when this time and its generation came and then passed away? I was where we always were; where aspiring writers, bullshit artists (one and the same at times), veterans from past wars, young waiter-actors desperate to get their first break waited on tables, made coffee, dreamed and clawed their way toward a fantastic future they believed was theirs; a place where working girls took a two minute bathroom break in the afternoon and after midnight, always under the watchful eye of their murderous pimp.
A seedy, beautiful café brought us all together. The public called it. “Brownie Points.” That’s what the torn cloth awning displayed to everyone. The locals knew it as “The Points,” a legendary place where writers, actors, directors and vagabonds would congregate. Where, on any given day or night, you could meet, as I did, actor Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No), or actress Viveca Lindfors, whose dramatic eyes knocked you back on your heels when she stared at you, or actress Jessica Lang, or director Jim Jarmusch, who despite his wild head of hair was quite reserved. The list of people who showed up because they were hooked on those brownies was endless.
In those days, due to hourly muggings, constant apartment break-ins, bodegas being robbed where welfare checks were cashed, and assaults of every kind taking place day and night, the neighborhood did not allow for an outside “Café Society.” For a time, there was no other outdoor café on Second Avenue from 14th Street all the way down to Houston Street (pronounced Howston Street). Just the Points, the window into our world.
It was a place where you could sit with your drinking and writing buddies, your Communist neighbors, or just the poor folk, and watch the life in your neighborhood unfold. The hours would come and go and the evening would become seduced by the “nocturnal bloom” of sound made by those vagabond musicians. It echoed up and down the avenue: the strumming sound of a guitar with a voice singing a song. Bob Dylan was a standard, as was Leonard Cohen, Buddy Holly and Cat Stevens.
I was still so young, there was so much I had to know and I could not wait. Even though I did not listen. I had found a girl, and I had married, and I had settled down. But I wasn’t calm; a fire burned inside of me.
Charlie Parker was still alive, his spirit embedded in the fingers of a young black man who would stand a few feet from the entrance of Binibon’s every night, hoping to earn a few bucks from the exiting well-fed diners. In my mind, I saw his tenor saxophone not so much as a musical instrument he was holding, but as a beautiful woman he couldn’t stop caressing, who he asked, through the gentle touch of his fingertips, to make only those sounds a woman should make, the ones that matter to a certain kind of man.
A week before, a gifted writer and forever a convict, Jack Henry Abbott, had, after finishing a meal, gotten into an argument with a waiter and stabbed him to death on the sidewalk in front of Binibon’s. Does the reason matter? It doesn’t. It never will.
It was late at night; the traffic had died down. The summer breeze could do nothing to cool the sweltering hot night, or dry the sweat that drenched me. I listened to the music of “Blue Moon” bouncing off the brick walls of the tenement buildings, played by that young, black man. Rumor had it his grandfather had some history with the neighborhood. He had jammed with Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus at the Five Spot Café around the corner on the Bowery and Fourth Street. Music was in his blood. Maybe that was the bad hand dealt to him from which he would never recover. How would he be rewarded for who he was?
From this place, in this state of grace known as the Lower East Side, I could observe every aspect of human folly: human bravery, human cruelty, and human kindness, all while seated on a hard oak bench that made a square out of the space of the sidewalk café, or else seated on an old beat-up metal chair next to wooden tables stained and pockmarked with hundreds of cigarette burns. The tables had long ago become ashtrays, were never stable, and would always tilt to one side or the other, making it necessary to hold onto your chipped, white ceramic mug as it rested on the table. And on those occasions when it did happen, you grudgingly accepted a stranger’s cigarette ashes flying into your coffee.
Her name was Wendy. I never did know her true name, but whenever I think of her, she will always be Wendy. Her eyes possessed such youthful innocence; a waif, still in her teens, with dirty blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a cherubic face. She was a petite Rubens painting, whose hips and thighs were ample but restrained. She had a mouth that seemed never to have been kissed. She came from parts unknown, but now, as then, I believe she was from the heartland. In all that she was, it showed. She lacked the angular, urban beauty found in so many girls born amid these obelisks of concrete and steel.
Wendy was a runaway. What she was running toward, only she knew. Perhaps she was in search of something.
There was a time, it isn’t true anymore, when running away to New York was as simple as a one-way ticket that brought you to the Grey Hound Terminal on 33rd Street or to the Port Authority on 42nd Street. The Terminal is no longer there, and it’s not so easy anymore to come, let alone live, in this city of monuments giving homage to its mansions of gold.
A time that was, oh what a time it was, when you could come to my city and for little or nothing live, if you tried hard enough, unencumbered from your past. And if it did happen and you succeeded in shedding from your psyche the tyranny of your past, you would start to seek it out, the thing you came in search of, your real self. And if you did by chance find it and embraced it, then you were one of the lucky few. Because then it could be said you had come of age.
Wendy always sat at a particular table if it was available. I began to notice this when I saw how she’d lean against the wall outside of the café, waiting an hour, if not more, for that table to become available. She’d make a beeline toward it the moment it was free.
I don’t ever recall seeing her with a friend.
In my neighborhood, we were not invisible to each other, but locals spent their time with each other. Wendy was an outsider, barely noticed.
Weeks passed, and I didn’t see her at the café. Then, one early morning, with my writing pad in tow, I entered the Points to order my coffee. Sitting inside a tiny space filled with only four tables, I saw Wendy hunched over the table. She was strung out, high on smack. To this day, I do not know why those first moments of staring at Wendy so devastated me. I hated my city for all its temptations. I should have gone to her, accepted her telling me to mind my own business and to fuck-off!
I should have cared.
Instead, a sense of devastation turned into anger. Here was another one, a pup from the hinterland, unschooled in the ways of the big city, but caught up in the fantasy of a walk on the wild side. Whatever life she had left behind, whatever horrors she had run away from, nothing had prepared her for the sinister openness of life in my city. It’s called The Big Apple, and for a reason. Countless numbers of women who were Eve and men who were Adam have been cast out of it, or simply perished after their first bite.
I sat down at a table with my coffee and watched the familiar head nodding that comes with being high on heroin. The sense of devastation never left me, nor my sense of being angry at Wendy. It need not be. There are greater journeys to experience in life with so much more joy than having the contents of a dime bag shot into your vein. But the first high is like that first bite; you’ll want a second and a third. The Apple never gets smaller, no matter how many bites you take. Just ask a heroin addict.
I should have grabbed her. And whether she fought me or not, I should have dragged her to Bernstein Medical, only twelve blocks away, where all the Lower East Side dope fiends who overdose are taken. But I didn’t. I let her nod off, a familiar scene at the Points.
Growing up on the lower east side, it had become all too familiar to me. Wendy, and young girls like her, were such a familiar sight. Addicts, the ones just getting started alongside the dinosaurs, those who were well into the journey of being dope fiends. What that moment told me about my inaction was that I had not yet come of age. I, too, in my own way, had remained a pup. To this day, I have no recollection of what I did after I left the café. It remains a blank. She was someone’s young daughter. I have a daughter now, and there is not a moment that passes when an unknown fear does not overcome me for my child.
Several months later, I saw Wendy at the Points wearing a summer straw hat, sitting at her favorite table and sipping freshly squeezed orange juice. She wasn’t strung out, but she was still using, and there was one other thing. Still in her teens, and on the path to becoming a dope fiend, she was about to bring a child into this world. I saw it in her eyes; she was trying to get clean. But the monkey was on her back, and it was not going to let go of her willingly.
I couldn’t stop myself from staring at her. She was just a child. How could all of this have happened so quickly? Where was her family? Why was she alone with no friends? That morning, she turned and looked at me for the first time. She smiled and said, “Hi.”
“Hey,” was my lame response to her, but she kept smiling at me, and I did the same. She rubbed her protruding belly, then lowered her face and whispered something to it. She smiled again, not at me, but her belly.
I remember that morning so well because I’d been so happy to see her again. Why did it matter? I didn’t even know her. But I couldn’t stop staring at Wendy. And if she noticed, she didn’t seem to mind. Then it just happened; she made every effort to get up gracefully from her chair. She was petite, and her belly was big. I got up and steadied the rickety table.
“See ya,” she said.
“You bet,” I replied.
The thing is, I never did see Wendy again. I do not know what happened to her or her unborn child. From that day forward, and as the months and years passed, there have been times when I thought I saw her uptown on the #3 train or standing on the subway platform on Bleecker and Lafayette Street, or at Columbus circle walking by herself. My heart would always begin to pound as I would make my way toward her, thinking it was Wendy, hoping it would be.
I was always wrong.
I’ve told myself, I’ve made myself believe, that she was one of the lucky ones; that she made it. In some way, and somehow, for some reason, she beat the hand she’d been dealt. I refuse to believe it’s not true. Her son or daughter has a young mother who was strong enough, and who loved them enough to kill that monkey on her back. She had something more important to care about in her life than the need to take another bite out of the apple. I’ve made myself believe it.
In that brief moment of time, Wendy synthesized, for me, every aspect of human folly: human bravery, human cruelty, and human kindness that was always on display for me to witness from my vantage point. Without asking, she had encouraged me to be something more than only a voyeur into the lives of others.
There is no such thing as a perfect story, but there is that right moment that happens to every writer, when what he will write could never have been written before, or after, except at that moment.
For me, that time was 1994; a news laden year. The arrest of O.J. Simpson on charges of murdering his wife and her lover, the election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa, the tribal war and carnage in Rwanda, the ethnic genocide stoked by age-old hatreds that brought an end to the country of Yugoslavia.
A child will, by a mere child-like act, produce a surprising, unintended outcome when a parent least expects it.
A stay-at-home dad for six years, I had spent the whole day alone with my daughter, Olivia, who had been belligerent from the moment she awoke (despite my telling her how much I loved her) as I went about cooking and cleaning. By the end of the day, I had the kind of seething migraine that makes a person unable to keep their eyes open for longer than a few seconds at a time because your brain feels as if it’s been dissected by a rusty, serrated knife.
I couldn’t wait until the apartment door opened and my wife, Cory, arrived. It could not have happened a moment sooner. I had no thoughts of how stressful her day might have been, only how fast could I run out the door while I handed off our daughter like a “draw play” in football.
With my daughter safely in her mother’s arms, I rested back on our futon with my eyes closed. But I needed to be distracted from the throbbing pain in my skull. So I flicked on our TV, volume low and rested back against my futon bed, again with my eyes closed. I listened to the world’s despair summarized by the broadcast.
Soon, I couldn’t bear hearing about any more death, killing, and the coming of the apocalypse. It made my migraine worse. I looked up at the clock on our kitchen wall. Seven pm. I’m usually at the Points by this time. By then, that café on 2nd Avenue and Fifth Street in Manhattan is the center of the universe.
On the last minute of the news hour, I heard the narrator say, “She was a Muslim, he was a Serb.” My daughter was tugging on my arm. She wanted to watch her favorite tape. I nodded, and just as I was about to get up and turn on the video player, the news anchor said, “But there was one picture and one story that seemed, for a moment, to break through the fatigue of horror.” Guided by some instinct within me, I reached forward, grabbed the knob and raised the volume.
I heard a remarkable tale of two lovers who refused to accept war as the final arbiter of their life together. My headache began to subside. Call it my soul, my heart, but from wherever it had emerged, in an instant I was reminded of an unchanging human truth: a transcendent love between two people is the kernel of human existence, and the essence and meaning of such a love is often found in the crucible of war.
Later that night, I left my apartment when my wife and daughter were fast asleep and went to the Points, which stayed open until three am. I sat at my table on the sidewalk, holding a mug of coffee, contemplating how I could tell this story of Admira and Bosko, the couple who lived a life that was not one of caution. It was ablaze with passion. It was brutal, vivid and all-encompassing. They risked their lives every day so that they would never be separated from each other, all the while caught in the carnage of the siege of Sarajevo.
It was the perfect story, I remember telling myself. I felt elated and defeated at the same time: it was so daunting to me, the task of telling their story. I knew nothing about them, or so I believed. Would the parts of their story that mattered to me also matter to anyone else? Would anyone care to read about an unbounded love between two people?
Some years before that night, sitting in my café, a seasoned streetwalker came up to me and asked if I wanted a date. I was broke at the time. I replied that it wasn’t the perfect night.
She looked at me and said, “Honey, there’s no such thing as the perfect night, only the right time.” And then she walked away.
Now, years later, I sat at my table and contemplated the fact that I’d heard a perfect story and was overwhelmed by the thought of it. I remember what that young hooker had said to me and realized there had been some wisdom in her words.
There is no such thing as a perfect story, but there is that perfect moment that happens to every writer when what he has written could never have been written before or after, except at that moment. I flipped open my writing pad and, believing I had come into a state of grace, began to jot down some notes that would become a story about something that is not fiction, but very real. A transcendent love between two people.
The lessons of life are simple in their context, they remain un-ending, and they are taught to each one of us when we least expect it. The first and best lesson I learned as a young man from my vantage point at a seedy cafe on the Lower East Side. Was that everyone has a story to tell; unique in its experience but universal in its understanding. Being a voyeur into the lives of others showed me up front and personal that: Love, Pain, Fear, Shame and Death, will touch us all. And that to truly appreciate the gift of having a life, it cannot be done as a spectator. You and I should look at our hands often to see if it’s been deep into the muck, out of which we are fashioning the bricks to build a life that is of our choosing. I often hold up my hands to look at them.
Neither fame nor fortune had placed a glow of happiness around the heads of those who had become famous and who entered the café over the years. Why would it not be more visible to me? A halo of contentment. When I looked upon those who have the things they’ve always desired? What is the life lesson to be learned? Perhaps it is this: achieving what they had desired most, may not have brought an inner peace that is a pre-requisite to a happy and contented life. A cautionary tale for this writer.
And what of, those who died too young. Whose faces and smiles I can never forget. Whose addictions may never have been conquered? They remain another one of life’s lessons in which I have been instructed. You see…I am so lucky. To have what I possess. The strong arm of love of those who are in my life.
A severe migraine brought on by my five year old daughter caused me to change my routine, remain home, and by chance hear about two young lovers in war-torn Sarajevo.
An unintended outcome.
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A writer, perhaps more than any other “artist” is tasked with the sole purpose to illustrate in words, the many moments he encounters in his life with which he will create a story a human drama, such as the misery and loneliness in a stranger’s life, that this writer came upon, one Thanksgiving Day. A stranger, whose head is bowed, his hands, fighting to hold onto whatever little sanity and dignity left to him. As he presses them against his aged face and brow, is it also an admission of defeat? Has his life proved to be too unkind, too unjust? Will he break, he asks himself. Does he see it? There is no future. He has none. Did he ever? Should he lay down his arms, accept defeat and welcome death?
And while he contemplates the life that is left to him, maybe he remembers he was once his mother’s son. She loved him, as only a mother can. He cried in her arms. She sang him a lullaby. He’d suckled on her breasts. She made him strong. He must have had the love from a woman at least once in his life…didn’t he? Sitting on the curb, he is a forgotten man. He is joined by another lost soul who sits behind him, also lost in his own thoughts, as he stares down at the hardened concrete sidewalk. He, too, was someone’s son once, but she is no longer alive—his mother. She can no longer protect him, give him shelter, provide him with food, and above all—love him.
He reminds me of someone I knew, a long time ago, his name was Jimmy. He was a Texas boy, a vagabond like so many of his kind in those days. Those days were in a different century and when being hip, and being a cool cat came with a story—yours. When you smoked cigarettes, drugged yourself silly, survived it or just cut out, overdosed and died. But not before on that same night that you died. Only a few hours before you checked out, you fucked yourself silly with this sweet little girl you met on Saint Marks. Your friends found you three days later in your one room fourth-floor walk-up on Avenue B. You were dead. Just you alone. That sweet thing, she was gone. Well, it was all part of the scene, you know. What scene you ask? The Lower East Side scene, man! When Lou Reed took you on a walk on the wild side. And it was a walk, more savage in its journey than anyone could ever imagine. Maybe this boy with his guitar will see a whole lot more sunrises—maybe. Right now he’s just tripping.
There was a place known to everyone on the lower east side around the corner from Saint Marks and Third Avenue called “Around the Clock” a restaurant with an American/Asian attitude that stayed open every day, twenty-four hours, 365 days of the year. It served the best French toast all day and night, and the best beef Yakisoba. It was cheap, and the atmosphere was raw. The seats were wooden, the air dry but the coffee always fresh and hot. And if it was five in the morning or twelve midnight, the waitresses made you feel that you were home. They were young and hungry and from places far and near, determined to make it in this city of dreams. And here is where I would bring my newborn daughter in a snugly when she weighted but a few pounds. And I would feed her with her milk bottle, and I would eat my French toast. And when I was filled with the best challah bread and lightest pure maple syrup, and she had fallen asleep in her snugly while pressed against my chest and the beating of my heart, I would take out my writing pad and begin to scribble down, what a struggling writer always will–his untethered thoughts, the beginnings to hopefully a good story. It was here where I continued to bring my daughter till she became a young lady.
I happened to be on that day at the right place at the right time to witness people at their best. I walked passed a middle-aged married couple sitting together enjoying the sunshine. I noticed that the wife was observing a young couple in a loving embrace. Perhaps watching them reminded her of how it used to be when she was young and in love with the man who was sitting at her side. Her husband. The young couple is framed on each side by the married woman and her husband. I had only a few seconds to focus and take the shot. Thankfully the young couple lingered just long enough in their embrace for me to capture the moment. Life is like that, don’t you think? The best moments of living are fleeting, but oh so beautiful to witness.
Food for thought early in the morning: A bottle of coke with breakfast to be chased down with a strong cup of coffee. Now that’s how it’s done, if you want to feel that caffeine energy surge through your body. Because in the early morning, I’m ready I’m prepared to start off from where I left off the night before, at the end of a perfect sentence, the only one I had written and had struggled to write all day. But I had rightfully and wisely stopped writing early that same night because I had ignored my family. Feeling her sense of being abandoned yet again for yet another night, I placed my pen on my small writing table jumped up and took a shower. Returning to my bed and to my wife, I attended to the needs of a very understanding woman. We talked for quite a while before we made love. Intimacy for my wife had many levels. Later in the night when only I remained awake, I was reminded once more of an unchanging truth. We are selfish, self-centered, solipsistic, myopic creatures—we writers. Shitheads, we most certainly are, who wrap ourselves up in the prison of our own making, the solitary confinement of our thoughts, a place in which I discover what I perceive to be pure and noble about life, and about love. And in that isolation, I know I will reaffirm to myself what I despise about life—the injustice meted out to so many and how it saddens me. But it is in this solitary confinement, that I also write about what I find joyous about living. And so it is, the converging of the many ideas that inhabit me, ideas that are in fact my cellmates, confined with me in a writer’s prison, where I feel the freest I’ll ever feel as a writer. Where there are no walls or bars to restrain my creative self-confinement is not incarceration for a writer.
That morning, I sat at my usual table at my café, when I found myself unable to turn my face away from looking at a young, and beautiful beyond measure, Ava Gardner. She was the one who got away from Frank Sinatra. His consolation prize for having lost her would always remain the same. He’d said, that in his youth, he’d heard the music of the universe. And though the heartache he felt for having lost her was unbearable, he never stopped listening to it. The music of the celestial spheres never stopped playing for Frank Sinatra. He was without doubt, an immovable object, who suffered the grave misfortune of trying to covet her. Ava was an irresistible force, and beyond ever being possessed. And then I began to think, did it happen this way? When they found themselves together in the solitary confinement of their creation, they discovered each other’s selfish, self-centered, solipsistic, myopic selves, a place with no bars to restrain them from each other and from their love-hate, and from their—creative selves. There never is a moral to such a story, just unbounded passion, and heartache.
Come on now you know the words. Where all your cares drift up into space up on the roof.
Yup, it was a “rauf” six flights up in the middle of town, right smack dab on the corner of Second Avenue and 7th Street, where all kinds of adventures took place. Between the boys and me, oh yeah…and also with those beautiful girls, who possessed an urban beauty. And if you don’t know what that is and you haven’t seen it, I can’t explain it. You need to see it, to know it. And when you see it, you will fall in love with it…because it gets into your plasma, and it can never be removed.
At night, the stars did put on a show for free, just as that all too familiar spire of light that lit up my city of dreams. And when our world started getting us down, there was a place, where solace and contemplation were expressed by some not so tough guys, because there was no one else but the crew to hear what we had to say to one another, up, on the “rauf.”
I often come to this place on Fifth Avenue, I don’t think I’ll ever stop coming here no matter how old I live to be. Because when I look at the colossus of these three buildings, I see the strength of their presence their outward defiance to the passing of any age. They will not crumble. Looking at them I am reminded of the wise words a playwright once offered up to me. He had had a major success on Broadway with “Kennedy’s Children.” We were sitting at our local haunt the old “Phebes” on the Bowery, drinking a pint.
My daughter was not yet born, but would make her appearance in the not too distant future. I was poor, a novice at my craft, and he knew it. I remember vividly, how he lifted his beer glass, took a hit, licked his lips, and with a glint in his eye, said to me.
“Whatever it is you write, make sure that you always do three things.”
“What’s that I asked?” An eager beaver, I wanted to be schooled by a master.
“Never stop whatever you are working on. Never think that it will be easy to stop and start up again. No matter what is happening in your life, marriage, divorce, the death of a family member, the birth of a child, don’t let any of it get in your way, slow you down or worse, cause you to take a break and stop. Once you do, you will never start up again in the way you had first started with the momentum you first had. You’re young and energetic now, but you will get older and then old. You will get tired, and you will feel overwhelmed, as you face life and all of the shit that is going to happen to you. But let nothing get in your way and cause you to stop.”
It makes absolute sense to me now that I am older. But you know something, I never did stop when life did get in the way. I kept hearing his voice, “Don’t stop no matter what…no matter what.”
Then he offered me his next piece of advice.
“Whatever you write,” he said “Make sure you make it idiot proof.”
“What do you mean?” God was I naive. He knew it. Perhaps he had also been that way, once.
“Whatever you write, make sure you make it idiot proof. Because one day some idiot director will come along and decide to interpret and adapt your story in ways it was never meant to be. He will do this for one reason only. His ego. So make sure your work is idiot proof.”
“Okay,” I replied, and I smiled, and so did he. Then he said.
“Make sure you build it like a brick shithouse. Because if it warbles, it will fall. Understood?”
I did. I nodded my head.
“Cheers,” he said and we brought our beer glasses together. For a young writer, such moments are forever imprinted into your brain. So you see, those three buildings, they’re built like a brick shithouse, and no one is going to fuck with their meaning.
It was fleet week once more, and the men and women of the armed services descend into my town, and we’re happy to have them, to buy them a drink and to be proud to take photos with them…as we always should be. I was finishing the last draft to my first novel, Charmer Boy, Gypsy Girl, while I sat at “Atlas Café” sipping my coffee. I always have my camera next to me on the table, because I know if I want to capture those special moments, I will have only a split second before they vanish. I looked up from the page, and that’s when I saw father and daughter together. I grabbed my camera, centered the photo and took the shot. I had only one chance to get it right. And I did. Take a good look. Go on, what do you see? It’s a young girl in her stroller, her head is turned as she stares down at the sidewalk passing beneath her. A naval officer in his whites is pushing her in her stroller. Just above him on the wall of the restaurant is written a word in long wavy gold colored metal. Can you tell what it is? Look closely. The word is Nomad.
In some ways how like a nomad is her father. He travels throughout the world for long months, away from all of those he loves, to finally return to his family and to his child. Those hands that are pushing a simple stroller on wheels down a sidewalk on Second Avenue, duty to his country might at any moment order him to do something far more sophisticated, even lethal, with those same hands while he is aboard his naval warship. By doing so, who will he be protecting? The simple and not politicized answer is he is defending his family. His child. His girl child in that stroller. So that she can grow up and live out her potential. And he is protecting me and all who are like me. So that I can continue to write, and live up to my potential.
Like I said, I always have my camera ready, because a moment will last for only a few seconds. The thing is, this moment didn’t last for a few seconds. They posed for me. They were porn actor flies. They gave me every angle I wanted, and I kept clicking away with my camera. If you look closely, I’m sure you can see it. They’re smiling. These two went at it for a very long time. I got tired just watching them. But then I got jealous. Jesus, this bugger could last for hours, and I mean he wasn’t playing. Now that’s what I’m talking about, because when you think about it, really, does anything have any more meaning than intimacy? I’ll let you choose whatever word you would prefer to describe this sexual act. Doesn’t it make you want to do it right now? Be honest, it does, doesn’t it? I feel the same way.
Charmer Boy, Gypsy Girl
Tulsa Book Review Five Star Review
I think it’s possible the most universal story is that of star-crossed lovers. Even one variation on it, Romeo and Juliet, has been retold in dozens of ways, from simple adaptations of the source to other time periods to making the story into a musical. Why, then, should we need another? Is there any point in telling the same story again and again? I would insist that there is, for the power of the stories lies not just in the plot. It lies in the backdrop, in whatever setting the author chooses to place the lovers in. In this case, the story is in Sarajevo of the 1980s and 1990s, turning Charmer Boy, Gypsy Girl into a very different form of this tale from Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story.
Like both of those, the tale starts out with love at first sight. Bosko, a Serb, goes out with his friends to a New Year’s Eve party. There, to his surprise (though not to ours), he meets a beautiful Bosnian Muslim girl, Admira. She is as smitten by him as he is by her, and they slip off together to find a room of their own. Though the chemistry between them made my heart race, they do no more than talk. That talking feels more intimate than any physical connection might have been, and by the time they part, it isn’t a secret that they will meet again and again. When the book skips ahead months, then years, it is no surprise that they have continued to meet.
For those who know the history of the Balkans, it is also no surprise that life in Sarajevo at the time was growing more difficult. Tensions were rising between every ethnicity, and it wasn’t long before those tensions reached a breaking point. Sarajevo is no longer a safe place for young lovers. It is no longer a safe place for anyone.
Victor Harrington draws the reader into Bosko and Admira’s love beautifully, but I was even more amazed by how he brings us into the conflict. I knew something of what would come, having read a bit about it, but I was still blindsided by the suddenness and the violence. I was drawn into the war zone with them, and Harrington does an excellent job at portraying all the complexities of a land at war with itself. Hope and despair, love and hate, ideals and pragmatism…all tie themselves together, showing the difficulty of being human in the midst of inhumanity. I fell in love with the book, and I’m certain any other readers will, too.
San Francisco Book Review Five Star Review
One fateful New Year’s Eve in Sarajevo, Bosko and Admira shared a kiss that changed them forever. In December of 1983, just a few months before the Winter Olympics would come to town, these two teenagers found themselves falling in love against the backdrop of a soon-to-be war-torn country.
Victor Harrington’s novel Charmer Boy, Gypsy Girl is based on the true story of Bosko Brkic and Admira Ismic, known as the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo. Their story has been covered by writers and filmmakers before, but Harrington gives them a life and a heart that has been, until now, treated more journalistically. In his novel, Bosko and Admira are kids growing into adults, trying to make sense of their own lives while also trying to understand what is happening to the country they both love. And, at the same time, they are falling madly, wildly in love with one another. Perhaps this is best illustrated in the story Bosko tells Admira, a story of an emperor moved to tears by the beauty before him. He tells her of the emperor’s words, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is here. It is here. It is this.” In that moment, readers see Bosko and Admira have found their paradise in one another.
Over and over, Bosko and Admira promise they will be together, no matter what happens. They promise each other, their friends, their parents. They are committed solely to each other and to a future. As Harrington walks the couple through their love affair against the backdrop of their increasingly dangerous and violent country, the tension and the beauty are expertly developed side by side. And, even though you may want to stop reading as you sense impending doom, you simply can’t put the book down.
IndieReader Five Star Review
Verdict: Superbly written and well-researched, CHARMER BOY GYPSY GIRL is breathtaking story about the transformative power of love, even in the most insurmountable of circumstances.
CHARMER BOY GYPSY GIRL is a novel about enduring love in impossible circumstances. Bosko is a handsome and charming Orthodox Serb. Admira is a Muslim Bosnian with gypsy blood running through her veins. In spite of their religious and ethnic differences, when they meet at a New Year’s Eve party and share a kiss they know that it’s fate. As Yugoslavia begins to splinter and lines are drawn between ethnic groups, the couple will have to fight to stay together — and alive.
CHARMER BOY GYPSY GIRL is meticulously crafted, drawing on ample historical details to bring to life one of the most horrifying events of the 20th century: the siege of Sarajevo. Based on the real-life love story of Bosko Brkic and Admira Ismic whose heart-wrenching tale captivated the world in the 1990s, Victor Harrington’s novel is a powerful reminder that love can prevail in even the most brutal conditions.
While it is a love story, CHARMER BOY GYPSY GIRL is also very much a stark examination of the cruelty of war. In its pages, we see the best and the worst of humanity. As Sarajevo is under attack, life comes a matter of day-to-day survival. Serbs and Bosnians are pitted against each other, but Bosko and Admira refuse to let their love become another casualty. Rather than allowing their relationship to dominate the narrative, Harrington uses it to contrast their grim surroundings, highlighting the senselessness of war and the resilience of the human spirit.
Superbly written and well-researched, CHARMER BOY GYPSY GIRL portrays one of the most ruthless periods of modern history in haunting prose. Harrington does not hold back in his depiction of the ethnic cleansing that took place during this tumultuous time and reminds us through Bosko’s friend, Matko, of our responsibility to safeguard life. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” says Matko; these words remain relevant today.
Ultimately, CHARMER BOY GYPSY GIRL is a tribute to that most powerful of emotions which rules us all: love. Admira and Bosko are vivid characters who stick with you long after the final page has been read, almost as if they are begging you to remember that, in the end, love must triumph over hate.
~Christine-Marie Liwag Dixon for IndieReader
Manhattan Book Review Four Point Five Star Review
Charmer Boy, Gypsy Girl is a saga of love based on the real-life events of the celebrated pair Bosko and Admira, also known as the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo. It was New Year’s Eve of 1983. While Yugoslavia was gearing up to host the Winter Olympics for the upcoming year, a bunch of young people were transitioning from their traditional ways to gather at a friend’s house to party the new year in. It was here that fate brought together Bosko, the Charmer Boy with an Elvis smile, and Admira, the Gypsy Girl. There was an instantaneous connection between them. And in the days to come, these two people were to epitomize limitless love, only to have it tragically ended by bullets.
Charmer Boy, Gypsy Girl may be a well-known story for readers from the past decade. But what stands out for this book is the author’s narration of it. Victor Harrington has done a brilliant job at tugging us into the world of Bosko and Admira. He has created an experience for his reader that aptly reveals the life in those times – the cruelty of war, the unfathomable shades of humanity, and the struggle of these two madly-in-love people to survive in this devastation. So, don’t mistake Charmer Boy, Gypsy Girl for just another romance novel or some historical fiction. It is an interwoven story of boundless, passionate love and a horrifying memoir of the Siege of Sarajevo. This book will break your heart and make you cry; it will also make you think and question our actions as humans.
This is such a well-researched work with flawless story-telling, incredible for a debut work! The author has enriched the already strong real-life characters. The nitty-gritties of their life – what goes on in their minds, their conversations – everything is realistically portrayed. And the story doesn’t end at the last page; the epilogue is worth mentioning, too! Just when you are mourning at the end, the epilogue talks about an undiscovered letter from Bosko to Admira that says, “I think the purpose of life is to be happy. To enjoy the gift that is to be alive…and I know it is no one else but you whom I shall always love.” It overpowers all your emotions with love, agony, and sympathy. Kudos to the author! I only wish that the book was a little smaller in size.
If you want to place yourself in a historic event and witness the story unraveling in front of your eyes, pick this book! It will break your heart and gray your world, but, in the end, it will leave you satisfied with a feeling that love triumphs all.
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The Debut Novel from Victor Harrington
The essence and meaning of a transcendent love between two people—the kernel of human existence—is often found in the crucible of war. Such was the love between Bosko, a Serbian boy, and Admira, a Bosnian girl, who were caught in one of the most barbaric and brutal periods of the last century—the breakup of Yugoslavia.
American photojournalist Mark H. Milstein’s haunting image of Admira and Bosko captured the world’s attention, and the couple was embraced as the Romeo and Juliet of war-torn Sarajevo.
They would not be parted, even as they lived like animals among the dead and the dying, even as they hid from those who sought to destroy them. Bosko would not leave Admira when he had the chance to escape death by leaving Sarajevo. Admira risked her life so that they would never be separated. Caught in the maelstrom of a war, they lived their lives with passion and unbounded love for each other and were never parted, even as they were betrayed to their enemies by Bosko’s closest friend.
In Sarajevo, there is peace within despair and love amongst hate. On the blood-soaked sidewalks and ancient walls, it is said by some that you can still hear the whisper of these two lovers.
“Was there ever a time when we were not together?”
“Never, never a time when we shall not be together.”
Film Title: Was It Only About Sex
Shooting schedule: 2019
Was It Only About Sex? Is a coming of age story of six teenagers, who have grown up together in their small affluent town on the East Coast. About to embark for college, they are faced with the reality that for the first time in their lives they will be separated from one another. Tight emotional and physical bonds have been forged between these young men and women, who must now, if they choose to, delve into the reasons for these deep emotional and physical commitments. Was it because they were in love, or was it all about sex?
Jen: 18 year old Caucasian girl
Molly: 18 year old Caucasian girl
Leah: 18 year old Caucasian girl
Josh: 18 year old Caucasian boy
Lucas: 18 year old Caucasian boy
Liana: 57 year old Caucasian woman
Michael: 58 year old Caucasian man
Cynthia: 42 year old Caucasian woman and mother of Jen
Jill: 42 year old Caucasian woman and mother of Josh
Cyril: 42 year old Caucasian woman and father of Josh