It was a girl. A girl with a Botticelli face dressed in bell-bottoms and a pea jacket standing in the steam rising from the sewers. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen.
“What are you doing here?” He demanded.
“We really need gas. We got lost driving around the city and then we saw your station.”
“My friends and I.”
“There are more of you?” One was bad enough.
“Yes, they’re in the car.”
Runaways, oh lord, runaways, he thought. It was 1968 and the city was swamped with runaways, all trying to find Greenwich Village and Bob Dylan. Instead, if they were lucky, they ended up at Father Frank’s calling their parents for money for a return trip home. If they weren’t lucky, they were used and spit out by the godless ones, left to sit on the doorsteps of brownstones, selling oranges or themselves.
“You girls shouldn’t even be in this part of town.” He followed her to their car, a hump-back Volvo with Nevada plates. “You need to get back in your car and leave. This is the Bowery.”
“But, you don’t understand. We’re really out of gas. We’ve been driving on empty for at least an hour!”
Empty, out of gas, out of luck, lost. Probably hungry, dirty and on each other’s nerves. But he couldn’t help. His hands were tied. “Look,” he explained, “I can’t sell you gas even if I wanted to. The owner has locked up the pumps and gone home and I don’t have the keys.”
“Oh. Is there another gas station around here?”
“Not in this part of town!”
Couldn’t they see where they were? The dilapidated brick buildings, storefronts boarded up, trash and broken glass filling the gutters. Were they blind to all of that? “They all close around eight anyway. No one stays open after dark down here.”
By now the other girls had fallen from the car. They were even taller than Venus of the Sewers. They reminded him of the young girls who came to the seminary every spring when grasses exploded overnight, forming a chartreuse chastity belt around the seminarians. Girls who came with his mother and sister. Girls, hormones igniting at the thought of mingling with the supposedly pure and chaste, acting out the passion of Christ. They made him feel short although he wasn’t. He was five ten.
Venus of the Sewers spoke first: “Is there a cheap place nearby where we can spend the night?”
“You girls don’t want to stay in any of the hotels around here.”
“Because you’re not prostitutes, are you?”
“You’re not prostitutes are you?”
“Then you can’t stay in the hotels around here.”
They looked at him dumb-founded. He didn’t know what to do, what to say. He couldn’t just leave them at the station. They’d never survive the night, hunkered down in that small car with winos banging on the steamed windows, begging to be let in for a warm place to sleep. Maybe he should march them down to Father Frank’s. They could sleep on the hard wood benches beneath the statues of saints, and early in the morning have breakfast with the Father: hard boiled eggs and slices of white bread, strong Lipton tea and, a stern lecture. In the name of all that is holy, go home to your parents.
But St. Marks was at least a four mile walk. By the time they got there —if they got there — they would be soaked to the bone, chilled and susceptible to all kinds of city rot. He had to find someplace closer. He thought for a few moments and then it came to him. It was easy. Marcia’s.