"Petty Female Criminals," a short story. Catapult Community 2017

Updated: Jul 15, 2020


A Story of a Greenwich Village Landmark

Petty Female Criminals

Imagine the manure. Clumps steaming in the cold road all around me, kicked up in fast brown flurries by hooves and brisk men, and sometimes even ladies coming down off their high carriages, their doe feet and human weight altering the streetscape. Coming down and ducking inside, for what? A bolt of new velvet, fantastic skeins of wool, and the very rich ones, their torsos bent to form nineteen inch waists, might retrieve strands of pearls, embossed calling cards form the printer, a spherical fur muff.

Our craftsmen whistled in my rafters. I was a receptor, not yet complete, and they labored in the February wind, the cool slices of air from the Hudson hurtling down the old slim streets with salt and fury. At my center was a curvy stalk of white limestone that would become the staircase, soft, stately in an American way. I was no Florentine Chapel. I was no Chartres. Steps screwed up and down the stalk in a wide spiral, and the land behind me, strewn with rocks looked like a quarry. The staircase was my most elegant feature and already there were scuff marks on the curving planks. I was growing threadbare, used, just as I was being created.

The workers whistled the most boisterously at the women who dug their hands into the darkness of those incredible fur muffs. There was something overtly sexy in the article, unseemly, even more so as it was considered proper attire. There was little sanctity in my stained glass. The workmen did not read the images as they tapped them into place, they only dreamt of being warm and rich, New York’s perpetual dream. And it was the rich women, the coddled ones, who evinced the most envy and lust. Between the carriages and the furrier, their pointy shoes picked their way through the trodden street, skirts held slightly aloft. Commerce! Fresh fish. Fur. Newspapers. Hats. Not for me. I would have a bell tower and a small formal garden for contemplation amid the din and clatter, amid dust and always, all those boys who worked for coins, running, arms and legs streaked bare, even in winter. Caps snug against their little skulls like thieves. Capital! Horatio Alger, little boy’s dreams and now, strangely, space in this merchant’s city for a new church, for priceless thought.

I breathed in the white clouds around me, the western sunset poured like gold into my loose, unfinished skeleton. I was anomalous. I would be finished but would never be a product. I hoped to be completed, but I would not be sold, only inhabited. I hoped that groups of girls would sing within my walls. I wanted their voices in one echoing sweet mass to overwhelm the wheels of the carriages, the seller’s screams. I wanted girls dressed in white, girls everlasting: their lithe limbs, pink eraser of fingertip, of tongue, bellies soft as new bread. Girls with mouths stretched into O’s, hips still rectangular, girls with the thrill of new notes, and of the dark splotches of color that bloomed in their sleep (the memory of my stained-glass) girls with athletic tendons, stretching forever standing, singing their voices up and out to all the alleyways and to the rushed, pocked, poor boys. Dreaming of girls was like a premonition. But I liked men too. The man who executed my dimensions had a shy, serious smile. He worried over the idea of my buttresses and towers and sketched me blue, alive in fresh ink on his sacred rolls of paper. Crackling out inside a wood-paneled study one day, the walls were too thick to hear the street at all inside the rich chambers of the benefactor. Only an idea, then one dimensional, I still lived largely in his brain, simmering in a mass and then flickering up like a shark fin to the surface of the water. Lit and dormant in turns, I was conceived, not yet born. From this I understand ideas. Fragile, elusive, grown slowly and inside human bodies, in that curled and packed wet heft of brain. The parts of me grew complimentary as those lobes inside a skull, as the architect and the benefactor mulled me over, bounced me like radar between their eyes and with their voices, rattling the idea of me in their heavy chests and lungs, over a massive mahogany library table. “What do you think of her?” the architect asked, his lips sort of quaking with me, his moist palms pressed against the curling edges of the paper where my image lay flat. “Lovely. It is a she isn’t it?” the other man said, massaging his beard. “As houses and ships are she. Speaking of houses you must come up to ours on the weekend. Do you shoot?” “Yes,” he lied.  “Good. I think this is just what the neighborhood needs. You must agree.” There were already five or six churches but none directly on this long seller’s avenue.  “Quite,” he said and swallowed hard, not completely believing that I would be born. The singers in the choir were all boys, although they had voices like girls. They were twelve years old, I heard them say so. Twelve. As if human age is immutable and solid, as if time does not affect them. But they did age: When a boy’s voice cracked-a squeak on a rusty door, a knife slit through syrup-the music stopped and he would leave, go out my door into the clamber and go be a man. I liked the shininess of their hair falling like glistening caps around their soft faces, their shuffling and the way they mumbled together as they donned their black robes, buzzing with camaraderie tinged by solemnity, by fear. I could see how they had been only ideas once too, embryos, expectation, pure potential. Between men and women, they had been only a slip and a smear, a dishevelment of a bonnet, fallen trousers, fast and loose and explosive. Conceived seems a perfect word for it. (I can’t forget the excitement of the brain when life is nascent, immaterial.) I did not know a lot then about those who were “ill-conceived” though I knew the term from the way the benefactor spoke about certain buildings being ill conceived. Later I would learn of babies wrought of violence, of mastery and submission, accidents. The fact is I craved girls and women. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because, at first, there were so few visible in the streets. They seemed rare and precious. And I was called a she myself. I wondered how they lived from room to room, what thoughts swirled in their ankles, in their eyes, cast out of carriages and windows like fish from inside a bowl. A few sold goods around me in the street. It was hard to determine their ages. Their faces bore no trace of ideas anywhere. Their mouths were set tight, skin thin as parchment, and they had watchful, careful, scrutinizing eyes. They carried wide shallow boxes packed with cigarettes that hung off their necks and rested, in a right angle, on their hips. Arms akimbo, their dresses an inconspicuous watchful drape of gray. They were scared and fierce and worked harder selling than anyone else. They didn’t run like the boys did, echoing their slang around my corners, they were merely shadows, tiny bent women weaseling through, occasionally scavenging in the alleyways across the street.  It was a father and a son who pulled my bell and the boy rocked on the prickly rope getting red marks all up and down his forearms and thighs. His father smiled in a corner of the tower and shook his head while his son did this, as if not to spoil his fun. I liked noon best, the clanging and the echo one upon the next, so neatly and predictably like a dozen cracked eggs, like falling water in an echo chamber, that base to tip sound of reverberation. They pulled the rope and we rocked and swayed, and the city knew it was midday. Good Afternoon, New York City. This sound connected the benefactor in his dense plush offices of wood, the tiniest little girl with her rough face selling roses on Eighth Street, the modestly aspiring architect, the wealthy girl I saw on Tenth Street, snug and sealed behind her window pane, enduring her dull children’s lunch of soup and milk and cheese, a solemn girl, protected, who tried to imagine the outside world. They all heard the sound together and for a short while, commerce ceased. 2. I’m not sure how the carcasses got in. I see my mind, if I have such a thing, was deliberately limited. Then they were there, glowing red torsos, arms and legs split like empty hugs, their animal heads in a pile with so many sets of eyes, glazed and unseeing. Butchers in their white smocks ripped flesh on hooks, inured to blood, it decorated their bodices, congealed in angry spurts, sometimes froze in their greasy forelocks, caked in under the white moons of their working nails-if they were ever white at all. Men of New York, robust butchers, speaking myriad tongues, accents like swallowed marbles, hissing wood chips, high chirps and throaty commands. Babble reigned. My staircase was soiled. Sawdust soaked up blood. Shouts were in me now and the doors were bust open to my garden. Stalls were arranged on wooden platforms, tripped up in red and white stripes and there were screeching black boards, prices and cuts of meat marked up in snow white squeaks of chalk for shanks, legs, innards, tongue and heart. Meat for stew and meat for company. The most marbled cuts and the leathery flaps of flank steak. Whole roasts on Christmas, seller’s fingers underneath my window, blistered with cold. The whole pigs, their brilliant pink skins as smooth as human flesh. Leg of lamb on Easter. Numbers, all those prices, were within me now, all around me. I had been subsumed by the city. I still looked out for girls. Sometimes I saw them in other windows, staring at the market. More of them, in kerchiefs and foreign tongues sold papered packages of flesh. Teenage girls, wrists as tender as young shoots, tanned until the white line of the cuff, wrapped packages with paper and string. One little one stood on a stool and weighed packages handed to her by her father, balancing the meat on the swinging precarious metal weight. She read the scale with the majesty of any surveyor, making sure to get the right price. I was even proud of the ones at closing time who stood, their backs to the men, and in the pockets of their aprons, counted denominations with their finger tips, did rapid calculations and packed up their things with a secret smile—-their lips barely curved at all--of satisfaction. Sometimes, while meat parts were carried out my portals to the outside, blood and glass aflame with color, I dreamed I was a castle and they were making a great feast. But then they emptied out my doors selling past six PM, into the darkness. I missed the choir. I dreamed of the echoing bell, of a sensation that was at once--totally private, for my walls shivered indescribably, like the architect’s pattering heart and breath as he made me--and absolutely public. Plain and overt and shrill and solemn. It’s noon! Not in a minute, or later on, or tonight, but now everyone, it’s noon. Meat days, with no bell chiming, I no longer understood time as precisely. I’d lost the feel of counting, of the swift sixty minutes in an hour, the unraveling rhythm of time. Instead I knew time by light and dark and their tides, the swift switches in winter when the sun drastically vanished at four PM, and the unyielding roll of sun in summer, the color slowly melting out. I missed the hourly punctuation of the bell. The days repeated themselves: eyeballs and blood and white coats and babble and then the massive weight of carcasses, the squealing chaos of the dollies as they rolled out the doors. There was the cacophony of numbers, of prices in the garden, light growing, then dappling on coins, the gleam of knives, muscular veins winding like worms on tops of hands, masses of people then petering out to none. I did not know what I was here for. What was my reason to be? My inspired beginning no longer seemed to matter. To sell meat, I could have been any kind of structure at all. I was a remnant. I craved tenants. I knew I wasn’t beautiful but thought I deserved something better than this. I was falling apart, Girls, Girls! Where were they? In a lazy way, my paint peeled, my limestone stained permanently ochre, gray and yellow. Little filaments connecting sheets of colored glass fell out of the crevices in my windows. I grew creaky, indifferent, trapped. And then in the luxurious way of adolescents, I fell into a deep long sleep. 3. Decades later I woke and found a girl had fallen asleep on my floor, her skirt muddied and weirdly short, her legs, like so many of those splayed cows, fell open and relaxed as she slept. She cried in her sleep, and something warm, a deep pearl-ish substance seeped out from between her legs and slipped into a crack in my terrazzo floor. I think it was the memory in the substance that woke me. Conception. There was potential in it, and it was so warm. It seemed too strange to be true but there were more girls everywhere within me. On the floor in groups, standing in clusters at my windows their faces pressed up to see the street. They were all talking at once, a fast, twang-y English they’d all learned and they had the most amazing long legs, gorgeous, stippled with calf ridges and muscles that I’d never seen. Some, women not girls, spoke their own private songs to no one in particular, sounding out a droning incantation, and some prayed. I did not know who was truly penitent but they prayed and cajoled and apologized and sometimes they flattered their God. Others, stiffer women, who were dressed a bit like men, in uniforms, wore all blue and square blue caps over their hairdos and whistles around their necks. They stood and paced and they didn’t speak to each other. They watched. The angry ones were funny and fresh: winking, evasive, they laughed without mirth but with a sort of weird conviction as if to say HA! As handcuffs snapped around their wrists, itchy and cold on those little bones, they walked away blithely into makeshift pens where other women sat and, sometimes, without even using their hands, they managed to smoke.  Their lips were flames, eyes sharper than I’d ever seen them, eyes that knew things, lined in black, their cheeks like stripes of fire. Some of their faces were sad and the sad ones looked like they wore masks, clownish and severe and alarming. Others looked like they were still girls, their faces always breaking positions and changing, fluttering with knowledge, alarm, sass at the guards, humor because the older ones told them a lot of jokes, and fear. There were no choirgirls. I missed them. (Although I had never had them, I missed them from my dreams.) I liked the klatches of women, their accidental reunions because once inside they often realized they had met here, in my walls, once before, that they already knew many of the other temporary residents. Batches of women came and went, nearly as fast as the cows. In one door and out the other, as if I were a funnel. Prostitutes, they wore short skirts, shiny tops, crimson lips, wet pink tongues, funny wise eyes, big hair, no hats. They sometimes held little, disproportionately small bags that dangled from skinny straps off their shoulders. When they moved the tiny bags weightlessly flicked around their bodies like tails. They had breasts of all shapes and sizes. Some were black and some were white. Some, I saw, had very rotten looking teeth. One reminded me of a pumpkin carved to look like a face, I’d seen one in a girl’s window across the street. One had a limp. A few, on top of their very long legs, were quite fat. Some of the girls had stolen from shops and one wore a big apron with deep pockets over a dirndl skirt, a whole costume made for stealing. Young ones liked to steal from pharmacies-what treasures of unplugged “hot” rollers, golden tubes of lipstick, stockings, and odder things too, pumice stones, a box of one hundred fine-tooth combs, denture fixative, chewable laxative. These colorful packages emblazoned with the flat faces of still more women (though these smiled with dumb-looking eyes) poured out onto the floor. These thieves stayed only a very short time. Sometimes overnight and sometimes not. I imagined them pregnant with secrets, with their funny possessions, awkwardly packing them down around their bodies in store aisles. All those stores outside my walls-forever markets! They must have thought that they needed everything they took. The boxes of laxatives in pink rose cardboard, splayed up on the loot table, must have told them with their pretty faces and photographed noses that indeed they needed laxatives. Who could buy everything there was to sell? The culture produced hunger. Spending or stealing, consuming was the goal. None of the women in jail were rich women, the most ravenous of all. I still saw them walk by, but never on my side of the street, only on the other one. And they were always accompanied, guarded, by men who walked on the curbside as if to protect them from unforeseen danger, the spray of cars in potholes. Now when they walked by me they quickened their gait and lowered their eyes while a man steered them by the elbow, or the nape of the neck. Sometimes they stopped and pointed and stared before they hurried away. Usually the man would pause and point at my windows, all the inmate’s faces, crowded up into them looking out to the street. The free rich women on the outside would see the faces of the women in jail and gasp as their eyes met. Of course the women inside wanted to look out to the street. Petty female criminals, as they were called, they still had an interest in life. They were not socio-paths, and their times of incarceration cut them off from the world. I marveled at this reversal: Those who had been privileged girls in snug town houses with servants wandering and staring out the windows had had daughters and granddaughters and they had been let out to roam with a new freedom. Now the poor girls who had been selling on the street, were the ones on the inside looking out, while the rich ones walked freely. At night the avenue was lit up with cars, splattered, only occasionally with manure from an anachronistic policeman’s horse and at the end, from my southern windows, in my silent bell tower, I could see the growing ridges of lower Manhattan on one side and the variously lit Empire State building on the other. The female guards snoozed in my dark corners, weapons snug on their hips. It was then the prisoners came to life, jostling together near the high windows to catch a glimpse of that lit strip below and to send their voices down like beads along a hot wire. Visitors came: lovers, clients, friends, voyeurs. Sometimes political women came to see their activist friends who’d ended up in jail. “You really did it, Margie!” one might cheer up from the street. The activists took their sentences in stride. Not a maximum-security place, they were safe here, sometimes elated. They had landed and found a whole world of women. They had found bright portals of light, jokes, and this lovely ricochet of street talk, up and down my dreamy walls their voices shook. All those petty female criminals, I sensed, felt strangely, fleetingly significant. Not petty, but indignant, enjoying commiseration and community in my dirty palatial eves.

Of course there were sad women too. They did not steal or sell or fight. They did not enjoy the voices in their heads. They did not enjoy the birth of ideas like oil in the brain. Nor friendship, nor the flip lit joy of sex, because they knew in that mean slit way of knowing but not wanting to know, in that way of avoiding reality, that this place was only a short respite and then they would move on to a far worse place. They could never find community, were stuck within themselves, their thoughts intractable, and untransferable. They were incapable of change. They told the same stories over and over again and nobody could hear them. I, too, could not be heard. Who said my inherited inhabitants would keep away loneliness? I was used over and over again. Although unlike the crazy women, I would always change. Use me with city girls, use me with tricky women and righteous privileged fighting. Use me with women with legs like a marathoner’s, with friends bellowing up from the street. The insane women, their demented hair, their clothes, an unconscious blur, were the most lost and they became my favorites. My neighborhood, the village, grew lit and sexy. Poets ambled in the tiny mews. Black turtlenecks and coffee shops and stores full of books, cafeterias teeming with hip workers and wives. But I grew unseemly despite the writers and painters, despite this bohemia. I was considered incongruous, a kind of scourge. The world market touched everything. On my steps there were people reading TIME and LIFE and The New Yorker, (later I would know these well) their pages fat with advertisements. You like LIFE ladies and gentlemen, you like TIME ? Of course you do. I do too. They do too, our petty female criminals, yes, bad women, do too. They come and go and, eventually, just like those who follow all the rules, they die too.

4.  Here is the tricky part. I don’t die. I heard from the artists about bourgeois tendencies. Nice people didn’t want a women’s penitentiary in this part of town. Swank and color and shimmering life had met for a brief mix with female crime, with the lower classes. I remember everything. The jail was emptied. The inmates sobbed as they filed onto a yellow school bus to some other borough, their arms strung together with a rope, a softer chain gang. Manhattan, it seemed, was too slim and elegant: island of commerce, slit island of coins, meager wampum for a mass of slick land, an investment that sees no limit. The female criminals were dour as they left, looped together, hopeless. Being moved en-masse, seemed the greatest indignity they’d endured. First they were poor. Now they were faceless, their makeup gone sour, their voices inaudible, as they sat in the drone of the bus’s engine and waited for the light to change.

Some of them returned for their trials. I recognized their washed faces as they filed in wearing the drab jumpers of darker prisons. There were never children in me now, but men and women with briefcases. Judges with the swift dark swirl of their gowns. A typist who transcribed all crimes, clicking away on her humming typewriter. Whole transcripts of human error, of miscommunication, small flawed deeds of survival, of treachery, of the licentious. Clickety clack, she recorded it all wearing a cardigan buttoned neatly at the neck. There were guns in me again, in the guard’s belts and there were testimonies and sentences and tears. In my bell tower I could see the twin towers, one shyer, slightly shadowed by the other. I wonder about the communication between those two, the odd pleasure of having a twin. I have no one to talk to. My content is unsavory and my body starts to fall apart, as if starved. My stairs chip, my paint peels, cracks of moisture form in the space between my stones. I have become an ugly place. 5. I can’t account for my patchy learning, for I now house, and this seems the only thing eternal, a library. Patchy, because it is not a great library, and I am still a great big, baggy, empty dirty girl. Do whatever you want to me. I saw the twins fall on a sunny day. A violent, surreal puncture by an airplane. An unreal image lasting only minutes before the first collapse, then the spaced mourning of seconds before the second collapse. But I am still here. I contain the strangest books, a motley group. Many are discarded from personal libraries. Some are great and some are not and many of the good ones are soon taken away, stolen. A black woman in my lobby sits at a turnstile wearing a uniform and checks pocketbooks for theft. Her heart isn’t in it. She never imagines petty female criminals here, females of age thirteen, or thirty, seventy or seven, female criminals stealing books, taking them to their homes, their park benches, never to be returned. Women turning inward, away from the world. Women in the gallows know the pleasure of their own company. Now I know Moll Flanders, that ambivalent penitent, that wife and whore. A slim, teenaged, pocked harem, young ballerinas from the dance school across the street, sit on my steps and eat frozen yogurt during recess. But they rarely come inside. One, with a capped sleeve leotard and braided hair instead of a bun is curious. I can tell by the way she rests in the shade of my door, licking her yogurt thoughtfully and peering inside before her friends join her. I’m not known as a great library, as I said, but I’m here and I’m free, and if a girl finds the right book, and there may be several of these, even within me, she will know the embryo’s shiver the brain beat of imagination, something you can’t capture or really see clearly until it’s made, a vision flickering. And afterward, when she is heady and dreaming, she’ll walk out onto the street, the world market that is bloody, sad and free. May she find kind listeners.

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