It was almost 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and I was standing on the corner of Essex and Delancey streets. The cars fed to and from the eight congested arteries of the Williamsburg Bridge, swerving, jostling and sometimes even bumping one another for pole position. My cigarette reached the filter so I dropped it to the sidewalk, adding to the obscene pile of used butts that accumulated like the snow beside my new shiny black boots — already causing blisters.
The city that never sleeps didn’t get that way on its own.
New Year’s signs draped the windows of the cheap stores that lined the north side of Delancey Street, all the places to buy bargain clothes, bargain furniture and bargain food. Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken had recently formed a joint venture guaranteed to produce savings and bouts of diarrhea. A few revelers passed by, loudly getting an early start on the night’s festivities. I watched with anticipation every car that approached and drove past. Blowing on my cold fingers, I let out a frustrated breath, checked the time on my cell phone for the hundredth time and realized Mr. White had now kept me waiting for just about two hours.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t expected this. Lou Reed summed it up best: “He’s never early/He’s always late/First thing you learn is that you always got to wait.”
But two hours was pushing the limits of absurdity and the wait made my anxiety levels spike then spin out of control like the tires in the snow I was watching. Did he get cold feet? Did he realize how risky this endeavor was? Is he blowing me off? Was he arrested? Had the cops been watching him and decided to swoop in with the Vice Squad on his busiest night of the year? Was he dead? If any of those scenarios happened, I was fucked. My big break would be flushed into the East River with the rest of the sewage.
My hands trembled, a combination of the winter temperatures and angst. I finagled another smoke from my slowly emptying pack, took a deep drag and contemplated the situation as the smoke coarsened my esophagus. The cigarette was doing its job, helping me relax when my cell phone rang.
“Yo, I’ll be there in, like, a minute,” the voice on the other end said and hung up.
That’s Mr. White’s favorite saying. Everything with him happens in “a minute.” Everybody wants his attention and it’s easier to say, “I’ll be there in a minute” than it is to explain what’s keeping him. It could be a better party, or a prettier girl, a bigger deal. No matter how long that minute might actually be, we all wait for Mr. White — all night if we had to. When he finally shows, we aren’t angry anymore. We have to be nice because we want him to come, and then come back again. We need him — New York needs him. The city that never sleeps didn’t get that way on its own.
Mr. White pulled up several “minutes” later in a sporty black Nissan four-door with tinted windows. As he did, the tires rolled through the heavy slush that collected against the curb and sprayed me, soaking the bottom of my pants and boots.
“Fuck,” I said, flicking the sparkling remains of my cigarette into the river of sludge.
I hopped in on the passenger side, shook my already frozen feet off as ice water rushed down my ankles and collected in my spongy socks.
Mr. White was behind the wheel. He actually looked his age now, 44. It had been nearly a year since I’d last seen him and that year didn’t appear to treat him too well. He was still a good-looking guy in a rough, street-hood kind of way. His face, though, and his frame appeared thinner, making his cheekbones jut out more than I’d remembered. He was also sporting a new hairstyle. His blondish hair was shaved on the sides and the top was longer and slicked back. Mr. White had two cellphones fixed on his black dashboard in black holders. Both were lighting up like the Rockefeller Christmas tree.
“My boy!” he roared as we slapped hands and did a half hug over the car’s center console. “Been mad busy, bro. Already dropped like 20 bags on early orders. Then I had to bounce back to Brooklyn for a minute.”
“Cool. I really appreciate you doing this,” I said, fastening my seatbelt. “You’re sure this is okay?”
“No,” he shook his head with a twitch like a Tourette’s patient. “But I don’t give a fuck. You know how I roll.” He gave me a fist pound and then started sniffing, wiping his nose with his thumb. “Just remember what I told you not to print. You write about certain shit and we’re both rat food.”
“Of course, man. I’d never put you in any jeopardy.” “You’re a starving artist. You’d sell out your own mom for a suck and a buck.”
“We’re friends. Say the word and I’ll drop the article like that.”
“Just ’cause we broke bread don’t mean nothing,” he shot back, as we maneuvered through some traffic.
“We did more than break bread. You lived at my place for like a month. Remember? I still got shit in between my sofa cushions from you.”
“I’m busting your balls but I’m going out on a fucking big ass limb for you, bro. And it was only like three weeks. Don’t exaggerate.”
“Felt like a year but don’t worry,” I stressed, holding up my hands. “When I get my book deal, I’ll take care of you.”
“Yeah, well, you better get out your pen and paper, Hemingway, ’cause you in for one hell of a fucking night. So what are you calling me in this thing?”
“Mr. White! I like it. Suits me”
Mr. White’s phone rang, and he tapped it on the dashboard and had a quick conversation through his earpiece.
“My boy just hollered from a club in Tribeca. You dress nice like I told you?”
I opened up my coat and showed him my slick suit as if I were modeling.
“Good. Don’t think I’d recognize you not wearing your usual ripped-up jeans and old black T-shirt.”
“Broke out my best outfit for you. Calvin Klein.”
“How much you pay for that?” He looked my suit up and down.
“He should call himself Calvin Crime, bro,” Mr. White laughed. “You got ripped off. That suit looks like something from the Men’s Warehouse discount rack.”
“I look sharp, yo,” I said and straightened out my lapels.
“Yo? You trying to get the lingo down or something? You just stand there and try to look tough, white boy. The less you say, the better.”
He checked his mirrors and made a turn down Sixth Avenue. “Open the glove box. I got you a present,” he said.
I hit the button on the glove compartment. It opened, revealing a pair of black leather, fingerless driving gloves. “What’s this for?” I said, taking holding them up.
“You put them on your hands.”
“Just a little accessory for you,” he said. “Put those on. You’re my driver. Can you handle a stick? And I don’t mean the one between your legs.”
“Not since I was, like, sixteen. I haven’t even driven a car in a couple years.”
“It’s easy. Just like riding a bitch.” Te turned onto Vandam Street.
“What the fuck you talkin’ about?”
“The saying goes, ‘Just like riding a bike,’” I said, putting on the gloves.
“Do I look like I ride bikes? With the fucking helmet on and shit?”
“You’d look dope on one of those Citi Bikes, doing your deals.”
“I’d feel like I’m on a paper route,” he chuckled. “That’s why I like you. You crack me up.”
Mr. White double-parked across from what looked like it used to be an old bank from the ’20s or ’30s. Outside, I could see the velvet ropes, bouncers, and at least 50 people waiting in the cold to enter. The women wore high heels and miniskirts, sacrificing warmth for style.
“Don’t usually like to do clubs on New Year’s. Too obvious.”
“What should I do?”
“Hop in the driver’s seat and wait. Anyone rolls up on you, drive ’round the block and meet me back here.” He pointed to the spot.
He pulled out a black briefcase from the backseat. My eyes popped from my skull when he opened it. Half the case was filled with bundles of cash. The other with large plastic bags, each filled with hundreds of smaller bags of cocaine. He grabbed what he needed and hopped out of the car, crossed the street, and headed past the line of freezing club goers to the front door. He gave a bouncer a pound walked in like a VIP.
I climbed over the console and shifted into the driver’s seat. It had been a while since I’d driven a car, especially a standard. Everything seemed so new and technologically advanced since I’d last driven. Nervously, I checked out the car, trying to figure out where everything was and what it did. Shifting a knob, I turned on the wipers. I hit another button and the wipers began whipping back and forth at top speed.
Flashing lights appeared in the rearview mirror. Then came the robotic double beep of a police siren ordering me to move the car — the last thing I needed while sitting in a strange car with a shitload of drugs. I began hitting buttons frantically. I shut off the headlights accidentally, turned them back on, hit another button and finally got the wipers to stop. One problem solved at least.
“Let’s go,” the speakers of the cop car behind me barked.
I fiddled with the stick shift, which was in neutral, pushed down on the clutch with my left foot, shifted the stick into first gear, and with my right foot gave the Nissan some gas. As I released the clutch, the car buckled and the engine stalled.
“Move that piece of shit,” the squad-car megaphone commanded.
I got it in gear and began driving around the block. For an instant, we drove parallel, me and the cops. They glared in my direction from the passing lane. A couple of thick necks and square jaws. If they were looking for an excuse to pull me over, they had one. For all they knew, I wasn’t a writer. I was a criminal, Mr. White, and for all intents and purposes, that’s what I was.
This short story was excerpted from the novel White City by Brett Selmont, based on true events of his New Year’s Eve riding shotgun with a cocaine dealer.
Photo credit: Roey Ahram.