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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

I had it; now I had to make it mine. That is, I had to get it registered--in New Jersey, the state that presents its problems.

The first was figuring out how to break into a closed circle, viciously constructed of sticky red tape: I could not ride it until I was licensed, and I could not get licensed until it was registered, and it could not get registered until it was inspected. By someone riding it with a license. This is where strangers on the street come in.

I saw someone down the bloc
k leaning over a motorcycle. Desperation is good medicine for shyness. I approached.

Sure! He'd be happy to take it for inspection. His buddy would follow, driving me in his car. That is how I came to be sitting on a Saturday morning at the inspection station behind my new old motorcycle, watching in growing agitation as we . . . sat there. And sat. (New Jersey, Land of the Eternal Wait.) I realized that the fellow did not know, or appreciate, the fact that this was an air-cooled machine, and idling in the close summer air was cooling exactly nothing. After a while, fighting with my impulse to not upset the boat, to not second-guess people who obviously knew better (A Man! And a Man Who Owned a Motorcycle!), my compassion for this poor machine finally propelled me like a nine-foot wave. I ran over to him.
Huh? he says. Oh. Okay. And turned it off.

Later I learned it just as easily might not have started again for a long while, after such abuse. But it was a V50, my V50, and it was endlessly forgiving. It was a stalw
art machine. A forever machine.

And that is how I came to be riding it through the Holland Tunnel of an evening. (When the traffic was at a standstill, I lane split, illegal though it was, reciting in my mind all the while the little speech about the needs of an air-cooled engine--never mind the rider's need for oxygen--I would give to the sympathetic gendarme.) I was heading downtown, the site of all hope and life and des
ire in the early eighties, in one's middle twenties.

First there would be dinner at the place in Tribeca whose name I have forgotten, along with the food. (That was forgotten about three minutes after it was eaten.) The notable thing about the place was that it may well have been the last place in New York City where artists were permitted to run a tab--a long tab. The walls were hung with paintings from those whose tabs were left open a little
too long. No matter; they paid up one way or the other.

I parked on the sidewalk; that is what we did then, in the era of many latitudes. We did what made sense, in that age before parking infractions became municipal big business. The cops had better things to do. Especially in the depopulated nether regions of the city, the places where after 5 the streets were left to those relative few of us simply wandering in our search for our own kind in the dark.

After dinner I went back out, pulling on my helmet as I went. And stopped, when I saw something had been left on my seat.A half-filled pack of cigarettes, of a type I had never seen: Ducados. At a time when everything was taken as a sign, a swirling mystery (that music--is it speaking to me alone?
that boy--could he be the one? ), this was a mystery indeed, and one that filled me with a shivering. Did someone know I was still yearning for the departed lover, the one who rode Ducatis?

It took me years to realize that (duh) someone passing by had simply stopped to light a smoke, perhaps chatting with a pal and using my bike as a coffee table. But this night, it had meaning. Like every vision, every minute, in New York City when every wish had yet to be fulfilled, and might be--in the very next moment.

All these memories come raining back as I read Patti Smith's Just Kids, her memoir of her life as a beginning artist in a milieu that was a stewpot for a creative soup, in this very locale only a decade before I came to it. I ate in the same places, walked the same streets, shopped the same stores. The city welcomed the hopeful, and rewarded them with food to eat: psychic food, and on occasion actual sustenance (I, too, often visited Nathan's in Coney Island, where she and Mapplethorpe ended after their ride on the F train).

I found out about a nightclub I was told I would be welcomed to, in this era of the forbidding velvet rope and stone-countenanced bouncer, so long as I arrived on a motorcycle. What luck! I had one! The proprietor was said to be a collector.

That is how I ended up at an unmarked door on an alley downtown, on St. John's Lane, between Canal and Beach. (Was it another sign that, ten years later, I would find myself living on a street named St. John's Place?) The heavy velvet curtain inside the door parted, and I was in Madame Rosa's, where DJs played the most amazing, previously unamalgamated, infectiously danceable music I'd ever heard in my life. I went there every chance I got, parking the Guzzi in a line of other unusual motorcycles. Then something happened, I don't remember what. The time of Madame Rosa's came to an end. The Mudd Club, CBGB, came to an end. The unnamed restaurant came to an end. Robert Mapplethorpe came to an end; Patti Smith is in her sixties. The time of the V50 came to an end. The New York City I knew came to a crashing, shuddering end. Youth, too.

How often I am startled by my own past, when I chance to walk past its visions, now preserved in their own discrete vitrines. Later (I must remember) what happens even now will still later appear to me, behind glass, with informative wall tags. I must remember.

It was only later that I realized there was more to come, an endless string like pearls. Nothing, yet, has come to an end. I am tired of sadness. There will be more to come. (Except the nauseousness of getting groped in crowded subway cars; those days really are gone.) So it is that memories still live, still re-form. The necklace adds to its length.
I called this "Genesis." What comes to an end comes to an and.