Johnny Álvarez took his time, walking on side streets, keeping close to the shadows, and looking out for police. A twelve-year-old boy unattended in the middle of the night would be suspicious. He snaked his way toward the Miami airport, knowing there was a Greyhound bus station nearby. When he got close, he could see there was little activity. A child alone in a terminal would throw up as many red flags as one wandering the streets, so he found a secluded spot in a nearby park and hunkered down till morning. He shook off his school knapsack, which was stuffed with as many clothes as it could hold, and lay on the grass, but he was too wired to sleep. Instead, he looked at the stars, hoping he’d be out of town before his parents woke up and discovered his empty bed and his eighteen-year-old brother lying in a pool of blood on the basement floor.
By dawn there were enough people inside the station for him to blend in, so he pushed through the glass doors and went to study the list of departures. Amid the many buses was one leaving for New York City in less than an hour.
He walked to the counter and stood in front of the clerk—a tired-looking, gray-haired man—and asked to purchase a one-way ticket.
“Where are your parents?”
Johnny scanned the large room. Since he was brown-skinned with dark hair, he thought it would be more believable to pick people who looked similar. He found an acceptable couple lingering at the concession stand and pointed at them. “They’re over there, but I’ve got the money to pay. They let me go to New York every summer to visit my grandmother. She picks me up at the other end.”
“You don’t need a round trip?” the man asked, with a hint of suspicion.
“No. This year she’s going to drive me back and visit for a while.”
“Okay,” the man said. “That’ll be thirty-six dollars.”
Johnny pulled two twenties from his pocket and handed them over.
The clerk gave him change and a ticket in return. “Your bus is boarding in thirty minutes from gate seventeen.”
“Thank you.” Johnny headed toward his pretend parents to polish off the ruse.
Near the magazines and books, he saw The Traveler’s Guide to New York City. It was outdated—printed in 1969—but he figured things wouldn’t have changed that much in three years. The guide described different neighborhoods, provided maps for subway and bus routes, and highlighted historic sites. He brought it to the register, along with a few snacks and a drink, before drifting to the gate where the empty coach was parked. He looked at the sign above the windshield, which read New York City, and smiled. When the driver arrived to unlock the door and punch tickets, Johnny was the first one on. He marched straight to the back row and settled in with his gear.
It wasn’t until the bus was moving down the interstate that Johnny sat back and allowed himself to think about the events that had occurred the previous night. He rubbed his wrists. The rope burns from the night’s captivity had reopened the existing scars, but it wasn’t as bad as the other times. Glancing out the window, he tried to recall what had happened, but his memory was patchy. Had he killed Orlando or just knocked him unconscious? He had been too afraid to check, for fear he’d rouse him and have to go through another demented torture session. Instead, Johnny had sat quietly on the top step, behind the bolted basement door, and waited for his mother to release him. When she finally did, he went to his bedroom and lay awake until both parents were asleep. Once he felt it was safe, he packed his things and slipped out of the house.
The absence of guilt surprised him. He felt calm and confident now. Whatever might happen out in the world would not be worse than what he’d endured in that house. He wondered if his parents would care that he was gone. Would they even bother to file a report with the police? It was doubtful, but he could never be sure. He was going to miss his friends, but there’d be new ones. Ones he wouldn’t have to lie to all the time. He vowed to make sure he was never sent back to Miami. Dying on some unfamiliar street would be preferable. Johnny looked out the window as the scenery rolled by, feeling free and fearless.
As soon as the bus arrived at Port Authority, Johnny went into the terminal. It was much bigger and dirtier than the one in Miami, with hundreds of people hurrying in different directions, and there were more vagrants than he was used to seeing. As he made his way through the colossal station, looking for an exit, he scanned passing faces, trying to gauge if anyone seemed concerned that a young boy was wandering around alone. To his relief, no one even looked at him, not even the three cops chatting outside a shop.
When Johnny stepped out onto 8th Avenue, the heat hit him like a brick. It was hot in Florida in late July, too, but here the air was different—thicker and fouler—and he welcomed the change. The crowds were just as big outside the station, travelers trying to navigate luggage around commuters, beelining to their respective destinations. Johnny chose the path of least resistance, following a random flow of foot traffic until it spit him onto the curb at 42nd Street.
On the bus, he’d read about Times Square in the guidebook, and since it was close, he decided to check it out. He walked east until he came to Broadway. The scenes he’d seen in movies and on television didn’t do the iconic landmark justice. Johnny wandered around, drinking it in. Men at folding tables tempted passers-by to play their games of three-card Monte, while others sold cassettes and 8-track tapes. Made-up ladies in high heels, short shorts, and tube tops tried to lure anyone walking by into peep shows and XXX-rated movies. Mixed with the hustlers were people in three-piece suits and fancy dresses weaving through the crowd. Despite being small and alone in a city so huge and populated, he had never felt safer.
Johnny bought juice and a hotdog from a street vendor before wandering up to 59th Street and into Central Park. From what he’d read about the park, he thought there’d be good places to hide, but he needed to scope them out before it got dark. The park was expansive, with miles of paths filled with people biking, roller-skating, and skateboarding. Families had spread blankets on the grass for picnics, couples were holding hands and kissing, others played baseball, football, and soccer. And there were kids, lots of unattended kids, running all over the place. It seemed like everyone was on vacation.
As dusk rolled in, Johnny saw a small bridge near a wall of rocks. He climbed up and discovered a gap hidden from the path. He clearly wasn’t the first to use it. There were food wrappers, booze bottles, and cigarette butts scattered around—but it would do just fine for his first night in the city. He took off his backpack and put it inside the makeshift cave, then brushed the litter out with his shoe and lay on his jacket.
Johnny managed to sleep until just before dawn, when he collected his things and set off to explore more of the park. He found a water fountain, took a long drink, and rinsed his face and hands. The park had public restrooms, but they were closed overnight, so he picked a sheltered spot to relieve his bladder and change into clean clothes. He’d been wearing the same outfit for three days. His first challenge for the day would be to find a shower and a safe place to store his overstuffed backpack so that he could travel around unencumbered.
As the sun rose, he entered a wooded area, where the trees were tall and leafy. After selecting one of the leafier ones, he scurried halfway to the top. He’d grown up climbing Florida’s palm trees, which were much more challenging than the kind growing here. He was able to climb pretty high before resting on a branch to make note of some landmarks. There was a kiddie playground near the perimeter of the park, with a yellow high-rise across the street. Johnny removed the cash stashed in his pack, a few hundred dollars earned by mowing lawns and cleaning out garages, and what he had pilfered from his mother’s purse just before leaving home. He divided the bills between his pockets and socks, secured the bag between two limbs, climbed down, and headed out of the park.
As Johnny walked around midtown, he thought about the YMCA in Miami, where he’d recently started taking karate classes to learn how to defend himself against his family. He remembered that they had lockers and showers, so, after finding a phone booth with a semi-intact Yellow Pages, he thumbed through the crinkled listings to see if there were any YMCA branches in Manhattan. One was located on 14th Street. Johnny headed downtown.
At the Y’s counter, a stodgy-looking older woman peered at Johnny over her bifocals. “Can I help you?”
“How much for a membership?”
“Twelve dollars a month, but you need parental consent.”
“My parents are at work today, but I’ve got the money.” He pulled the cash from his pocket and showed it to her, then brushed an errant black curl from his forehead and batted his brown eyes for effect.
She squinted and bit her lower lip before pulling a form from a drawer. “Okay, I’ll let you in today. Just have this signed the next time you come.” She took his money and grabbed a pen. “What’s your name?”
Johnny looked at her blankly. His true name, the one on his birth certificate, the one the police might already be looking for, was Javier Alejandro Álvarez, but he’d been called Johnny for years. For whatever reason, his kindergarten teacher had struggled with the name Javier, so she’d called him Javi, which, over time, had morphed into Johnny. By first grade, everyone outside his household called him that, and when things started to get really bad at home, he preferred it. John was common enough to be safe, and what popped into his head for a last name was the one belonging to that kindergarten teacher. “Avalon, Johnny Avalon,” he said.
“Date of birth?”
“April 1, 1959.” April Fools’, why not? It was easy to remember, and, by subtracting one year, he had turned himself into a teenager. His actual birthday was July 25, the day before he’d run away.
She handed him the form and a temporary membership card. “I’m giving you this, but make sure you get the paper filled out by a parent, or you won’t be allowed in next time.”
“Thank you.” He stuffed them into his back pocket and smiled. They were the first official documents with his new identity.
Voices echoed in the hallways as Johnny looked around and collected class schedules. The pool was full of kids having fun. Though he liked to swim, he didn’t have a suit, and there were more important things to accomplish first. After locating the men’s room, he headed for the lockers. If he hadn’t been holding so much cash, he would have left his clothes unsecured. Instead, he opted to pay a dime for a coin-slotted compartment. He undressed, wrapped a discarded towel around himself, and went to the showers. There was a stall with a small cake of soap left behind, which he used to wash and lather up his hair. After rinsing and drying off, he got dressed and went outside, pausing on the steps to feel the hot sun on his clean face.
The Y would be a good place to meet people, keep up with his exercising, and shower, but he had to get the form filled out. Forging a signature would be easy; the problem was that they also wanted an address. Because he didn’t know the city, he worried that if he made one up, an employee might catch it and suspect him of being a runaway. He needed to seek out a believable location, and he wanted to find some other places to sleep anyway. The guidebook indicated that most businesses and tourist spots were in midtown and that the peripheral areas were more residential, so he decided to start at the top of Manhattan and work his way down.
He walked west on 14th Street until he came to a subway station and ventured down the stairs. He’d never ridden a train before, much less one underground, so the whole experience was completely foreign to him. After observing the commuters for a few minutes, he purchased a token for thirty-five cents and pushed through the turnstile. He studied the wall maps on the platform and decided to take the A train.
The underground system was mind-blowing. It seemed as if someone could spend an entire month riding all the different lines and still not cover everything. Soon the train came, and Johnny boarded. He sat and observed the people coming and going at each stop. There were all kinds of passengers: well-dressed people sitting next to slovenly ones, different races, young and old, everyone speaking different languages. He studied them while trying to remain invisible, a survival technique he’d learned all too well at home.
The train’s last stop was 207th Street. He walked out of the station and headed downtown on Broadway. The neighborhood was different from what he’d seen so far, less crowded, smaller buildings, and the stores didn’t look as fancy. A mix of people of different ethnicities were hanging out on stoops or tinkering with cars in the street. He heard a lot of Spanish, and the sound of Salsa music echoed in the distance.
Johnny meandered southward on the grungy streets, looking for a place he could call home. He was young but not naïve. To avoid spending time with his family, he’d wandered plenty in Miami, which suffered the same urban blight as any city. He could tell this was a poorer end of town. Some of the buildings were burnt out, and others were vacant. He recognized drug activity in the streets and could tell a junkie from a person who was resting. Regardless, he thought it might be a good place to claim as his neighborhood. Johnny’s Colombian heritage was evident. He had his father’s good looks, with dark brown eyes and jet-black hair that hung in a mop of loose curls around his head. His mother’s influence was represented in his smooth, light-mocha skin. It made sense to pretend he lived in an area populated by Latinos.
As the blocks grew more deserted, he found himself heading east on 180th Street. He stopped at a six-story brownstone that was bisected by a courtyard. A few broken cement stairs led to the lobby’s entrance. He pulled on the door, but it was locked. Peeking through the dirty smoked glass, he didn’t see any activity, so he walked back to the street to seek another entrance. A few people were sitting on stoops down the block but weren’t paying attention, so he sidled up to an unlocked bulkhead. He lifted the metal hatch and walked down a flight of narrow stairs, through a dark cement hallway, and into an alley. On the back side of the building was a second entryway at the top of a few steps. One of the panes of glass beside the door had already been shattered. Johnny gingerly reached through and turned the knob to let himself inside.
He explored the whole length of the ground floor. The cavernous lobby had probably been attractive once, with its sand-pattern tiled floors and decorative moldings, but it was now soiled from age and use. An alcove with rows of battered mailboxes sat opposite the main door. The cracked and peeling walls were marked with amateurish graffiti, but the building as a whole was quiet and tidy in spite of its decay.
Two hallways shot off in opposite directions, but only some of the apartments appeared to be lived in. Johnny could tell by their closed doors, the faint sounds of a television, and muffled voices. The rest were vacant, with their locks removed or their doors pried open. Inside they were devoid of any furniture or appliances, except for a few units with bare mattresses on the floors. Some also contained discarded clothes, candle remnants, and food wrappers. He figured people came there to drink, get high, or have sex, and maybe the homeless used them to get off the street. All in all, it wasn’t terrible. Whatever vagrants were camping out took care to keep it neat. One of the saving graces was that the water was still on, which probably kept trespassers from urinating indiscriminately.
Off the lobby was a marble staircase with a molded handrail. The steps were worn and scuffed, and the adjacent walls had been defaced with elaborately colored murals. He investigated upstairs. Each floor had a few signs of tenancy, but the evidence of illicit use diminished as he climbed. On the sixth floor, all but two of the units looked vacant. He selected a one-bedroom apartment to call his own. It was the farthest down the hall and had been the least molested by squatters. As with the others, its appliances had been removed when the last tenant moved out. The front door opened onto a short hallway leading to an L-shaped kitchen with paisley linoleum floor tiles. Several sections had peeled off, exposing dried glue underneath. Further in were a living room, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a walk-in closet. Some of the rooms had wall-to-wall carpeting, but the original color, whatever it was, had long ago been trampled into an unsightly gray. The plaster walls were cracked and thick with layers of paint.
Johnny checked the bathroom. Its white hexagonal tiles were yellowed and chipped, the toilet seat remained attached by only one hinge, and the large bathtub was blackened from decades of hard-water stains. He turned all the faucets to make sure the plumbing worked. The water that came out was brownish and lukewarm, but it would do for showering and relieving himself, at least until winter came. Although the electricity seemed to be working in some of the lower units, it didn’t work on the top floor. Johnny didn’t care—he planned to use the place only for sleeping and cleaning up.
It was getting late, and Johnny wanted to go out for some supplies before it got dark. He trotted down the six flights of stairs and pushed open the front door. A white girl now sat on the steps, tossing tiny pebbles into the gutter. Johnny guessed she was two or three years older than he was, even though she was short and slight. Her mousy hair was long and unkempt, and she wore cut-off shorts with a tank top and flip-flops.
“Are you new?” she inquired as he passed.
“Excuse me?” Johnny stopped to face her.
“I saw you come in.” She pointed to a second-floor window. “I live up there. I guess you must’ve forgotten your key.” She grinned.
“Yeah, well, I don’t have one.” He turned to sit next to her on the step. “Do you think that’s going to be a problem?”
She was still smiling at him. “I doubt it. Here, you can have mine.” She pulled out two keys that were hanging from a string around her neck and began to untie the knot.
“You don’t have to do that,” said Johnny.
“It’s okay. I’ll just tell my mother that I lost the one for the front door, and she’ll give me a replacement.”
“Why would you do that? You don’t even know me.”
“You’re right—but you don’t look too threatening.” She paused, blushing. “And you’re kinda cute.” She handed him the key.
He smiled back, not sure how to respond. “How long have you lived here?”
“My whole life. I live with my mother and grandmother in 2C.”
“What’s your name?”
“Lily, Lily Anderson.”
“Where were you going?”
She wasn’t shy.
“I was just going to buy a few things.”
“Do you want some company? I don’t have anything else to do.”
“Okay,” Johnny said. “Where’s the closest supermarket around here?”
“I’ll show you.”
She stood up to lead the way. They walked several blocks downtown to Gristedes.
Lily, it turned out, was a great source of information and offered it willingly. “This neighborhood used to be full of families, and I had lots of friends, but they all started moving out a few years ago when the economy got worse. A bunch of the buildings around here have already closed. The landlords weren’t getting enough rent and couldn’t afford to keep them up, so they had to sell them or give them back to the bank. My mom says it’s only a matter of time before that happens to our building. They fired the regular super a year ago, and we hardly ever have enough heat or hot water in the winter. Now, when you call for repairs, it takes forever to get shit fixed. She says they’re trying to make us leave so they can close it and be done with it.”
“I know. We don’t have any other place to go. My mom barely makes enough money to get by, and my grandmother’s on social security. Most of the neighbors have the same story. That’s why we all pitch in to keep it clean, so the city won’t come in and condemn the building.”
STREET is a gritty rite-of-passage story that tackles the challenges of homelessness and urban life in 1970s New York City, using a bold, edgy cast and elements of psychological suspense.
At twelve years old, Johnny Álvarez musters the strength to run away from his Miami home, where he has endured years of abuse from his mentally ill family. He rides a bus to New York City and finds a vacant apartment in a Washington Heights tenement to hole up in. Over time, he amasses a diverse gang of smart, loyal boys who help him survive and shield him from the authorities. Though they share ambitions that fall on the right side of the law, the money-making opportunities they find on the street are far too tempting to resist. Before long, the gang is entrenched in a very adult world, which is hard and unforgiving and keeps forcing them to compromise their morals. Eventually, Johnny can no longer avoid recognizing that the street is turning him into everything he tried to escape.
I was born and raised in New York City, where the streets were my playground, theater, and teacher. It is through those experiences that I was inspired to write this tale. Many of the locations, characters, and scenarios are close to my heart.
A. D. Metcalfe lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. She is a member of GrubStreet, the SCBWI, and the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod, and she sits on the Board of Directors for the Cape Cod Writers Center. In July of 2017, she won first place in Gemini Magazine’s short-story contest. Since then, she has also had pieces published in Dark Ink and Déraciné.
Embark, Issue 13, October 2020