Best Friends

I love Alana: she’s my life, she’s my girl. And I’d do anything for her.

You see, I’ve fallen on hard times and let me tell you, it can happen to anyone. I lived in a rent-controlled apartment across the street from Tompkins Square Park. I used to watch those bums in their raggedy clothes, sleeping outside, drinking themselves sick, and think they were lazy losers. Because I had a real job, working delivery in a pizza parlor on Avenue B. I didn’t make much, but it was enough to keep a roof over my head and to buy some decent food for me and Alana. I even had a small colored television and I managed to hook it up to cable from the guy next door. The best time of the day was when I’d come home late at night and Alana and me would snuggle up, watching late-night movies on TCM, where justice always won out in the end.

But the landlord wasn’t giving us what we needed in terms of heat and there was them constant blackouts and all sorts of fire hazards. The tenants made a lot of noise, so what does the city do? They condemn the building. Before you know it, the building comes tumbling down and a fancy new condo rises up in its place. A bunch of young yuppies move in and Alphabet City becomes hot with all them fancy restaurants and late-night clubs.

But not for me. Because now I’ve got no place to live.

Then the pizza parlor burnt down. I always suspected that the owners did it themselves for insurance money, because a small Italian restaurant opened up down the street. You know the kind of place I mean. Smaller than a kitchen closet, with tables squished together and a few chairs outside on the concrete so the yuppies can watch dogs pee and buses spit out smoke as they drink their red wine and dip their stale bread into a bowl of slimy oil. The pizza is thin-crust with chicken and shrimp and pineapple on top, and if you’re lucky, you get a slice of cheese and a teaspoon of canned tomato sauce.  But the customers are loving it and dishing out big bucks and everyone is smiling.

But not me. Because I got no job.

I guess it was karma. But I kept telling myself that if I could just make it through the long hot summer, by the time the leaves started to turn, I would think of something to keep Alana and me safe.

It’s the dead of winter and I’m still thinking.


“You stay right here,” I told Alana. “I’m going to bring back something to eat. I think there’s that free coffee and sandwich van up the street on Avenue A.”

She didn’t answer, just looked at me with those sad brown eyes. I knew she felt tired and sick of living on the streets. But I also knew she had faith in me.

“Where you going, Pee-Wee?” Georgie asked, sitting up suddenly. I noticed that his color was real bad—kind of gray—and his hands were chalk-white. He had an odor too, like someone who was about to check out.

“I gotta find something to eat for me and Alana.” Georgie sank down again, disinterested. I shook him. “Will you watch her? Make sure no one bothers her?”

He nodded but didn’t bother to open his eyes. It wouldn’t matter if he did: he was nearly blind. Something about a detached retina that never got fixed. And the other eye was infected. But I knew that he wouldn’t let anything happen to Alana. If anyone tried to bother her, he’d scream out. And just the sight of him would be enough to scare anyone away.

At least if Georgie didn’t freeze to death in the meantime.

“Hey, Pee-Wee,” Georgie whispered. “Will you see if you can bring me back something?”

“Something” wasn’t coffee or a baloney sandwich. What Georgie wanted was hard and strong.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I promised.

“I know you will.” Georgie’s voice was nothing but a rasp. “Because we’re best friends. Right?”

“Best friends,” I lied.


God, my bones ached, and my stomach growled.  I was so hungry I felt like throwing up, but I walked through the snow, ignoring the hole in my shoe. I kept telling myself that I had to make it: I had to go on, if for no other reason than to keep Alana alive, because she depended on me. And the strange thing was that I really believed that something was going to break soon. The two of us, me and Alana, we’d have all we need, which was just food and some hot drinks, and a nice warm room with a little cable TV.

Was that asking much? As long as we could stay together, we’d be happy.

So that’s what I was thinking as I looked for the long-gone van, as I searched through the trash cans, rifling through dirty napkins and frozen newspapers and empty soda cans thrown away by those snotty Catholic school students.

But my search was all for nothing.

I used to beg but I don’t do that no more. It’s not worth the effort. All them people in their nice warm wool coats and their dangling scarves, carrying messenger bags and looking important as they hurry off to their gray offices. They don’t even glance my way.  Maybe because I look so bad or maybe because I smell so awful they can’t bear standing near me while they fish around for change.

Or maybe they want men like me out of their neighborhood so the price of real estate can keep soaring.

But I couldn’t go back to Alana without bringing her something. She wouldn’t be mad, she never is. It’s just that look of despair in her eyes that I couldn’t take. But when I was about to give up hope—I saw it, in the corner. I went over to make certain that my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, because it was so cold that my vision was fogging up, but there it was. Half a bottle of scotch. It wasn’t the best, and I knew that some wino probably got sick and tossed it. He’d be back if he could remember where he put it. But I grabbed it first.

I grabbed it for Georgie and for a moment, I gotta tell you, I thought about just leaving it there, because I didn’t think it was a good idea to get smashed in the freezing cold.

Then I saw something else. A prescription bottle full of pills. The label was torn off but I thought the pills had probably expired. I took them out of the bottle and looked at the capsules real good. I was betting they were sleeping pills.

You could never tell when they might come in handy.

I stuffed the bottle in my pocket, thinking maybe somewhere down the line, I could trade them for food.

I trudged back to the park and passed the men huddled on the blankets, half-dead from frostbite and hunger. All lined up like patients in a ward. Only there were no soft beds and comforting nurses on call. Most of the alkies didn’t even feel much anymore, which I guess was a good thing.

And then I saw this guy cutting through the park with a real nice suit and a spiffy overcoat, walking like he didn’t have a care in the world. A jolt of fury swept right through me. What made him so lucky? And me and Alana, barely scrapping by.

The guy who said life wasn’t fair—boy, was he smart.

I made my way back to Georgie. Alana was by his side, still asleep. Georgie looked real excited. I never seen him so excited.

“A man came by,” he said. “He gave me money. A lot of money.” Georgie fished into the pocket of his ripped, stiff jeans and took out ten hundred dollar bills.

I shook my head. “Ten dollars ain’t a lot of money.”

“Ten dollars?” he coughed. “What you talking about, Pee-Wee? This here is ten hundred dollars.”

I shook my head. “Your eyesight is real bad, Georgie. That’s only ten dollars. Besides, why would a stranger give you a thousand dollars? Don’t make no sense.”

“Oh no!” Georgie showed more spirit than I had ever seen from him. “The guy told me he was giving me ten hundred-dollar bills! I may not see so good, but ain’t nothing wrong with my hearing. This money, it’s all mine.” He flashed a toothless grin and then he stuck the money into his jacket bottom, right on top of the knife he kept for protection.

“I got something for you, Georgie.” I showed him the half bottle of scotch. His eyes lit up. “You give me one of those bills and it’s yours.”

He laughed in my face. His spit actually landed near my mouth. “What do you think? I’m stupid?” he screamed, and several men sprang up from their filthy quilts like burnt toast. “You want a hundred dollars? I can buy ten bottles of the best scotch. Hell, I can buy a whole liquor store.”

I turned my back and quickly emptied the bottle of pills into the bottle of scotch. They didn’t dissolve so good, but Georgie didn’t see so good, so it was all right.

He was my friend—so I’d give him one more chance.

“Georgie, I’m real hungry. And so is Alana.” She was just lying there, half dead. “If I could just buy us a sandwich—one for me and one for Alana, and maybe a cup of coffee and one of them black and white cookies, I haven’t had one of those in—”

He gave me a hard, blazing look. “What do you think, I’m crazy?” He lowered his voice and looked around him, as though he didn’t want no one to hear him. “I ain’t giving you no hundred dollars. ‘Cause I’m betting you ain’t coming back with change.”

“But we’re best friends,” I mumbled.

He laughed again. “That’s only gonna take you so far.”

“Well, maybe”—I managed a deep sigh—“I’m a better friend to you than you are to me. Here.” I handed over the bottle of scotch. He studied it with his glazed eyes, and for a moment, I thought he noticed some of the half-dissolved pills.

“Maybe . . .” He unscrewed the cap. “Maybe tomorrow, after I spend a little bit, I could throw you a five.” He took a big gulp from the bottle.

And I waited.


It didn’t take long—half an hour or so. And I was getting real restless because it seemed to me that, as Georgie grew quieter and more still, so did Alana. When I thought that Georgie was out cold, I put my hand in his pocket and grabbed the wad of bills, real sneaky—because the men surrounding me might’ve been homeless, but some of them still had morals and wouldn’t appreciate if I stole from a corpse.

I had morals too, but if it was between Georgie and my girl, well, I had to save Alana.

As I stumbled from the gate, one of the boys asked me if Georgie saw his brother.

“His brother?” I questioned.

“Yeah, he was looking for Georgie. Gonna give him some money.”

Georgie didn’t even recognize him, I thought.

I carried Alana out of the park and headed for Avenue D. I felt kinda guilty, but then I told myself that Georgie was half-dead anyway, and Alana still had a lot of life in her.

I hid Alana under my jacket as I approached that flea-bag hotel. I think they know about her anyway, they just don’t care.

Suddenly she started acting awful perky, like she knew we were going to be okay: that I could take care of her. Her little black-and-white tail wagged, and her pink tongue licked my face.

For a while, we were going to be safe and warm and well-fed, enjoying the TV.

A thousand dollars can go a long way.

And by the time the money ran out . . . I’d think of something.