A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 3

We rounded the corner, turning back onto 42nd Street. I noticed right away, the boy with the salami was gone. He must have been part of the early-bird-special. He'd been replaced by several guys who didn't look all that different from Johnny. They all wore tight jeans and had displays running down the inside of one of their legs.

The first two hustlers we passed, had adequate displays. Each stood in the space between the theaters' marquees. Both of these boys were left legged displays. One of them had a set of ears that would have made Dumbo proud, but otherwise, he wasn't offensive.

He also had the best display, after salami boy left the scene.

Johnny walked beside me, but he didn't look at the competition, but both boys looked him over. Maybe they sensed he was someone else working the street. It might have been the too tight jeans that gave him away.

I walked closest to the curb, and Johnny walked closer to the theaters. His head never turned, while we passed his competition, but each of the boys eyeballed him. The meat rack was getting crowded, and it was getting close to showtime.

I wondered what time the prime beef would arrived to strut their stuff. This had to be the second team, and Johnny didn't look half bad, when stacked up against these fellows. It was a little like last call at closing time, you took the best of what remained.

Johnny stopped. I took two more steps and stopped.

I didn't want to crowd him.

Then he said, "This is fine."

Johnny's marquee had a double feature. One had Frank Sinatra's name under the title. The other was a John Wayne western. That seemed adequate to me. Although I don't think Johnny noticed the movies that were playing. He was there to pose.

Facing us, from across the street, were more theater marquees, and between each one was a boy leaning casually in between marquees. I couldn't tell how interesting those boys looked.

"Time for me to go to work," he said, leaning against the front of the theater, much the way the boys across the street did it.

It was then that I noticed, at the next marquee stood a cowboy, cowboy hat and all. He had the obligatory skin tight jeans, a yellow print type western shirt. It snapped up the front. He wore a blue bandana rakishly around his neck, and the boots were right out of a Roy Rogers movie. The boots made this five foot something boy close to six foot. I wondered why cowboys, usually tough hombres, wore high heels.

It wasn't an outfit I would wear, but he looked nice. I figured, he wouldn't last long. I wasn't placing any bets on how long it would take Johnny to make his big score. I couldn't imagine him making a big score, but what did I know.

The cowboy wasn't hard to look at either. I'd take a closer look, when I walked past. He had a boyish face, strawberry blond sideburns, and ample trouser stuffing to get interested parties' hearts pumping in anticipation.

The cowboy smiled at me, glared at Johnny. And then, he struck a pose, when the next car turned onto 42nd Street. The cowboy had done this before. He didn't move, as the car moved closer.

I knew what was on the driver's mind, because I could count the tire rotations, as the vehicle eased along the avenue, but he kept moving, turning right at the next corner. The cowboy relaxed, turning toward the theater, and then turning back to face the street.

Once the next car passed him up, cowboy looked right at me, pulled down on the front of his jeans, smiled again, and his smile made him even more handsome than before. After taking the momentary break, he turned back to face the street. The next car also moved on on down the avenue. He used two fingers and his thumb to touch the front of the cowboy hat, like he might be saying, 'Howdy,' to the new schoolmarm, but the next car kept moving too.

Maybe they were sightseeing. None looked at Johnny, once their cars reached us.

I wondered what time cowboy got off work. I always wanted to be a cowboy. Maybe I'd ask, once I left Johnny's spot on the street.

"You need to get lost," Johnny said. "Come back around midnight. Don't stand too close to the cowboy, if you're going to hang around the theaters. He's working, and you can't afford him."

"I'll keep that in mind," I said. "If you aren't here at midnight, I'll go to the car. You can find it OK?"

"I'm not stupid. I know where we parked," he said.

"Later, gator," I said, walking toward the cowboy.

I kept my eye on him as I passed. At first he showed no expression, then, he smiled, before he laughed.

"Whatever that jerk off does for you, I can do better. I know how to treat my boyfriend," he said, following me with his eyes.

I went one theater up, leaning on what I assumed was a power generator, or some such as that. Whatever it was, I didn't expect any lightning to strike out of the clear New York City sky. I felt safe.

I gave the cowboy a couple of more smiles, and I looked down to where Johnny stood. He looked a lot like a half dozen guys on the two sides of the street. Besides the cowboy, and a guy who looked like a refugee from a motorcycle gang, complete with chains and a funny looking hat. He didn't lean like the rest of the hustlers, he stood on the curb a few inches from the street.

Standing there was like going to the movies. It was more entertaining than some of the movies I'd seen. The guys who stood out, really stood out. The rest were clones of hustlers they'd seen. The number of cars easing their way down 42nd Street increased, as the night grew darker.

That's how it looked to me, but before dark, I wasn't paying much attention to the street. I was busy with Johnny and what he was doing. I figured if I was going to see him work as a hustler, this was my chance.

I'd get bored after a while, but for now, as the stage was set for the hustlers between theaters on 42nd Street, I was set to watch whatever it was that went on. I was a little excited.

Being in New York City for the second time, allowed me to get a better feel for one of the most diverse cities on earth. It was where the United Nations met, and it's where the iconic New York Yankees played baseball. It was where the Statue of Liberty stood, and it was where Broadway met Coney Island.

I didn't know if there might be street fairs in progress, and I doubted I could find my way back to where they'd been, but I wasn't here for the food this time. I wasn't here to discover the friendliness of New York City's neighborhoods, as they shared a taste of their cultural foods with anyone who stopped at one of their booths.

I was hungry, and I'd have already have taken my leave to go eat, if it wasn't for the cowboy. I didn't do hustlers, but I'd do him. He was a lot more relaxed than Johnny, and when he caught my eyes on him for the third or fourth time, he smiled. I smiled back.

I heard the car turn onto the street a half block away. Cowboy immediately came to attention, adjusted himself with a smooth tug where it would do the most good, as the car rolled closer.

The car rolled past. It was another false alarm. No one was walking on either side of the street. There were eight or ten theaters, and they must have been in the middle of one of their features, because no one came to get a ticket.

As time got closer to one of the features being over, foot traffic was sure to pick up. It was past dinner time, and this had to be where a lot of people came to see movies.

at no one was walking along 42nd Street. There wasn't much activity at all at what would be dinner time. I figured, most theaters were in the middle of whatever movie was playing. Nearer the start time for the next feature, foot traffic was likely to pick up. With theaters on both sides of the street, this had to be where a lot of movie goers went.

I couldn't resist watching Johnny, albeit out of the corner of my eye. My surreptitious posture gave me an excellent view of cowboy. He stood between me and Johnny. He was sure I was watching him. Watching Johnny wasn't my full time job. I could watch cowboy too.

Every few minutes, cowboy changed poses, offering me the best view in the house. Then, as he moved, he'd flash me a big smile. He knew I was watching him, and he loved it. He was showing off to the boy who came to the dance with Johnny, but he never looked Johnny's way even once.

I think cowboy would steal Johnny's boyfriend, if given a chance.

I'd been flirted with before, and cowboy was a big flirt. I doubted I could afford him, if I did hustlers, but I couldn't help but smile back. I was flattered by the attention. Cowboy was a good looking guy.

Johnny didn't smile. He was so serious, he was funny. Anyone who picked Johnny up, and left the cowboy standing there, needed glasses, but I knew how seriously Johnny took what he did. I wasn't opposed to his being successful, I just had trouble seeing it.

I didn't see any humor in Johnny seeing himself as a hustler, until then. As he stood next to someone who obviously knew what he was doing, Johnny was all business. Cowboy wasn't all that serious. He was laid back. He wasn't hustling, at the moment.

There was a time for work, and a time to relax, I had no doubt, if a car turned down the block he was standing on, he'd be all business, by the time the car came his way. For now, he was playing, and he was playing to the only audience he had, me.

Next to cowboy, a far better looking boy, Johnny's poses weren't effective. While cowboy was enjoying himself. Johnny posed in the hopes someone would come along, and take him seriously. I was sure cowboy would turn on the charm for any car that turned down the street, but he used the free time to have fun.

Johnny was no more a hustler than I was. He'd seen hustlers hustling. It looked easy to him. The boys he saw hustling, probably didn't look as out of place as Johnny looked to me. If I waited to see Johnny getting picked up, I was going to be out there for a long time,

I needed to reconsider my options. I was hungry. We'd stopped for burgers hours ago, and it was past my dinner time. I'd wait a few minutes, maybe until cowboy got picked up, and then I'd go look for a place to get something to eat.

With the memory of the street fairs fresh in my taste buds, eating just anywhere would be a big disappointment in comparison, but there had to be good places to eat around Time Square. It was a touristy area, and I was sure tourists had to eat somewhere.

As I pondered what to do about my empty stomach, I temporarily forgot to keep track of cowboy. Once he went into motion, he got my attention. He'd been standing in the same spot since I arrived on the scene. Why was he moving?

Not only had cowboy started to move, he was moving toward a silver Mercedes. It rolled to a stop at the curb. I wasn't surprised to see cowboy heading for the car's door. I didn't think he'd be standing out there long.

The Mercedes had come to a stop in front of the theater where we were standing, and its window whirred, as it came down. It's what drew my attention to the business deal going on in front of me.

Cowboy walked with a swagger. The view from the rear was every bit as nice as the view from the front. Cowboy was the real deal, and he was about to go to work.

I glanced toward Johnny. He was stuck in the pose he adopted, after I walked away. If he noticed cowboy going to work, he showed no sign he did. He was as focused as I'd seen Johnny get.

Getting my attention back on cowboy, I expected him to open the car door to sit inside the Mercedes. There was apparently some transaction taking place. Of course, he wouldn't get right in. There was haggling to be done, but it seemed to take longer than it should. Why didn't he just get into the car, and I could go eat? Without cowboy to look at, nothing was keeping me there.

Cowboy stopped a half a step from the open window. As cowboy leaned to look in, the driver leaned to look out.

I was surprised to see a nice looking man, looking at me. As quickly as our eyes met, he looked away, as he said something to cowboy. There was more to hustling than I thought.

The man was a well-dressed, fine looking gentleman. I didn't know what I expected. I had a clear notion of what hustlers looked like, but not their customers. That half of the equation had never entered my mind. The man looked as though he might be Filipino. He was maybe forty. He looked like a man who would drive a Mercedes.

Cowboy looked over his shoulder at me. He was no longer smiling. Then, he reached into the car to take some money out of the man's hand. I couldn't tell how much from where I was standing.

Cowboy backed one step away from the window, pivoting on the heel of one of his boots, he walked toward me. The seriousness on his face indicated that he was no longer interested in flirting with me.

He stopped a foot from where I was leaning. I could feel his breath as he spoke.

"He wants you. You're working? I thought you were just a guy who hangs with that other boy. You should have told me you were working," cowboy explained with hostility in his words.

"I'm not a hustler," I said, defending myself from his hostility. "What does he want?"

"Why don't you get your secretary to go ask him," cowboy said. "He gave me five bucks to tell you that he wants to speak with you."

I could speak to the man. What would that hurt?

Cowboy walked away, going back to where he'd been posing, since I'd been there, and he threw a quick glare my way. He was one unhappy cowboy. I guessed, we were no longer friends.

I looked toward the car. I could no longer see the man's face. I could see he was sitting straight up behind the wheel, waiting for me.

If I didn't go over, he might drive away, after a few more minutes. He looked harmless enough. It wouldn't hurt to walk over there. I'd tell him I wasn't a hustler. I'm just... visiting!?

I had to do something. The Mercedes didn't move. I felt a bit like a fool, as I walked toward the side of the car. What was I going to say. 'Go away.'

Once I was beside the car's open window, I leaned forward to see inside. He was a good looking Filipino gentlemen. What was he doing on 42nd Street.

He sat straight, turning his head to look at my face, as my face came into view. He didn't say anything. I would need to speak, now that I walked over there. Awkward!

"I'm not a hustler, I came down here with a friend. The next one down from Roy Rogers," I said, pointing Johnny out.

The driver's eyes weren't interested in where I pointed. They stayed on me.

The man was smiling at me.

"Roy Rogers?" He asked, sounding amused.

"You stopped in front of him. He's dressed like every cowboy who ever appeared in a Roy Roger's movie," I said.

"You are wrong," the man said.

"I am. He's dressed like cowboys in a Gene Autry movie?" I asked.

His smile grew.

"I didn't stop in front of Roy. If you check more carefully, I stopped in front of you. Roy simply assumed I stopped for him."

"Oh," I said, having nothing to say about that. "I don't hustle."

"I was almost certain you weren't hustling. I had difficulty figuring out what you were doing here. Since I'm on my way to dinner, I was wondering if you'd like to go with me," he said, considering me as he made his proposition. "I don't like eating alone, and you look like you don't have a thing to do. Are you hungry?"

He talked slowly and softly. He spoke English better than I did, but most people did. I found myself considering his offer. His words were concise and straight to the point, and I was hungry..

"That's an offer I can't refuse," I found myself saying. "I'm starving. I have no idea where to go to eat. Is there a place where I can get a Thanksgiving dinner?" I asked, being a day early.

"I do. It's on me. I know a wonderful place that's not far, and the food is excellent," he said.

"Let me tell my friend, and I'll be right back," I said.

"Get in. I'll drive you," he said. "I'm Carlton."

"I'm Rick," I said, swinging open the door and sitting inside.

"Nice to meet you, Rick," he replied.

We rolled down in front of Johnny and stopped.

It was only then, I realized how this might look to Johnny.

I remembered how Johnny treated me, and how he didn't want me to cramp his style. This would require some hutzpa on my part.

I become more and more pleased with myself by the time Johnny came over to the car.

"He want both of us?" Johnny asked.

I laughed. It struck me as funny, but I wasn't in the habit of getting a laugh at someone else's expense.

"No, Johnny, he doesn't want both of us," I said awkwardly.

Johnny gave the car the once over. Then he gave me one. He leaned on the roof to see into the car. He gave Carlton the once over.

"He doesn't want both of us. I didn't want you to think I was leaving you. We're going to dinner. That way I won't be cramping your style."

Johnny didn't look too sure of what he was seeing. He stepped back and became immobilized, as he considered my words,

He stared at me in a most curious way. I couldn't read his expression.

Johnny stepped forward to lean his arm on the roof of the car again, moving his face down to see Carlton's face, before he spoke.

"You sure you know what you're doing, Rick?"

"I'm going to dinner with Carlton," I said.

"You aren't leaving me, are you?" Johnny asked with concern.

"No, I'll be back," I said. "You know where the car is."

"You sure you know what you're doing?" he whispered as if Carlton wasn't sitting right next to me and couldn't hear him plainly.

"This is Johnny, Carlton. Johnny, Carlton," I said, remembering Johnny's introductions to his hustler friends.

Johnny nodded at Carlton, before looking away.

"Everything is fine. You do your thing, and we'll be back," I said, looking at Carlton for clarification.

Feeding Johnny a little humble pie felt good. I was tired of listening to him brag, but Johnny looked a bit worried.

"Here, let me give you my card," Carlton said. "On the back, you'll find my private number."

Carlton removed a pen from his pocket, jotting a phone number on the back of the card. He handed it across to Johnny.

"While you're working," I said. "We'll go to dinner, and if I'm not back by the time you're ready to call it a night, call Carlton's number, and we'll plan to meet up."

Johnny looked at the card. He looked at Carlton. He looked at me, backing away from the car, shaking his head.

Carlton eased away from the curb, leaving Johnny with a confused look on his face.

I didn't look back.

It was a little sad. I thought I had put Johnny in his place, but I didn't know if he had a place. I should have felt more victorious for turning the tables on him, but I felt sorry for him.

"You looked as though you enjoyed that," Carlton said.

"He's such a.... I don't know what he is. He is always bragging about his exploits. He considers himself a big time hustler, but I've never seen him hustle anyone but me, and I'm only good for a few hamburgers and a place to put his stuff," I said, putting it together as I spoke.

We turned left at the next corner.

Why was I telling Carlton this? I didn't even know him.

Carlton listened without speaking. I saw the expression on his face. I had been cruel. I showed no remorse. It wasn't a good look in front of someone I didn't know.

"Kind of pathetic, when you think about it," Carlton said, meaning Johnny's reaction. "You don't know how he got that way. He looks like he needs a friend."

I didn't know him, and who did he think he was, telling me about Johnny. I'd put up with Johnny for several weeks, and he earned a little humble pie, in my opinion.

"I met him in Dupont Circle. He has sort of hung around me since then," I said, tempering my anger.

"He doesn't look like he has much going for him. He probably wasn't treated very well at home. He probably didn't get much encouragement, as a child. You might want to cut him some slack. There's a reason people turn out the way we are," Carlton told me.

With that little gem, I was ready to get out of the car. It was Rick unchained. Who the hell was he to give me helpful hints on life. I didn't need him to tell me how badly some children got treated.

Carlton had struck an exposed nerve.

"What do you know about it? You drive an expensive car, wear tailored suits, and you pick up the rabble for a laugh. Ain't none of us doing as well as you. You might want to stick that in your pipe and smoke it, buster."

He looked stunned by my rebuke.

He had nothing else to say, but he looked closely at the boy he just took off the 42nd Street meat rack. I figured that he was questioning his decision.

He searched my face in quick glances, looking for a reason I reacted the way I did to an off hand lament that meant nothing.

I rarely spoke my mind to anyone. To do it in front of a stranger was totally out of character, not to mention rude, and I instantly regretted it. As I thought it over, my expression softened, and my anger subsided.

Carlton realized he'd struck a nerve, but he wasn't sure what it was. He went from looking confused to looking curious. He had every right to stop the car and tell me to scram, but I knew that's not what was on his mind.

He became conciliatory, and he gave me a big smile.

"Sorry." I said, trying to explain, without sounding like a fool. "You sound like a know-it-all, is all. You know nothing about Johnny. I've known him for a couple of weeks, and I know nothing about him. Don't tell me, you're a shrink," I said.

Carlton smiled.

"No. You are right in one respect, I know nothing about your friend, or you, for that matter. I'd like to know more about you. I promise not to make any comments about your friend. I was merely commenting on his apparent need to find acceptance," he said.

"As for what I do, I took over my father's computer business, after he died. It's what he trained me to do. It's what I was expected to do, even if it came far sooner than either of us thought it would," he said. "So, no, I'm not a shrink, although running a business requires you to read people pretty well, if you want to succeed."

"And it isn't necessarily what you wanted to do," I said, reading between the lines.

"I didn't say that," he said. "What made you say that?"

"It's in your voice. It was a well told story that you had little to do with. It's what your father trained you to do. You took over far sooner than you thought it would, giving you no chance to bail out."

"You have an interesting way of putting things. You're pretty smart," he said.

I laughed.

"You might get an argument on that front. I have my moments, most of them having little to do with intelligence," I said.

"You don't react the way boys usually react to me," he said.

"How do they react?" I asked.

"First, they react to my color," he explained.

"What color are you?" I asked.

Carlton looked amused by my inquiry.

"I think of myself as a lovely sweet caramel," he said, with poetry in his words.

"That explains it," I said.

"I'm almost afraid to ask? What does it explain," Carlton asked.

"I am very fond of caramel," I said.

"You are an unusual young man. You hang out on the meat rack, but you don't hustle. You get in a car with a stranger, and yet, I suspect, it isn't easy for you to trust strangers, and you read things into my words that I failed to mention. Unusual to say the least."

"Once again, your assumption about me and strangers is wrong. I don't trust anyone," I corrected him.

"Then why did you get into the car with me?" He asked.

"When you leaned over to talk to Roy, I saw your face. I thought you looked like an honest guy. The thought I had, 'What a fine looking gentlemen.' Then whey Roy came to tell me you wanted to talk to me, I felt like I should tell you why I wasn't going to go with you, because I did see your face, which made you a real person, not a guy picking up hustlers," I said.

"Even with all that said, you got in the car with me," he said.

"I am starving. I haven't eaten since early this afternoon. You made me the right offer at the right time. Ordinarily, under those circumstances, I wouldn't have walked over to your car if things hadn't gone exactly as they went," I said.

"Very unusual," he said.

"Not strange?" I asked.

"No, I don't think so. Your logic is a bit circuitous, but I get it."

"Good, now you can explain it to me," I jested.

soft voice was pleasing. His story got my attention. The d He laughed.

"You don't trust anyone? Not your parents?" He asked.

"Especially not my parents," I said.

As we stopped at the next red light, I felt his eyes on me.

"You were young, when your father died?" I asked.

"I was thirty. My heart hardly skipped a beat, between his heart attack, and my taking charge of his company. It was always the plan. His plan, and before I knew it, I was living my father's life. I was trapped in my father's life. He'd built a nice life. It's just not mine."

His soft voice was pleasing. His story got my attention.

He laughed.

The disagreement we had was forgotten.

"If you want to take over your father's life, I guess it would be fine," Carlton said, coming up short.

"It isn't what you necessarily wanted," I said.

We stopped at the next light, and he took a long look at me.

The light changed.

We drove up one of New York Cities wide avenues.

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