Excerpt from “START” a novel

By Barry Finnerty
art by Josh Chambers



Oily odors are oozing from the baked black streets. Darkness is descending over the pulsating concrete and steel beehive like a shroud. For the next ten hours the illumination of all things will come not from the sun but the neon. The headlights. All right, maybe the moon. But it is underway. The nightly transition from the natural to the unnatural. The cockroaches will be coming out soon.

All across our teeming, steamy metropolis, in this building and that, certain individuals are just getting out of bed. Anticipating an evening of action. Plotting their next hustle. Preparing to prowl.

I’m not as bad as them, of course. I’ve been up for a good four or five hours already.

And the tourists are coming in. The businessmen. Streaming across the bridges and through the tunnels, in cabs, trains and limos, from every city and country on earth, every walk of life. And as soon as they feel that hot hard pavement under their feet, and look up at those bright multicolored lights and those sooty brick buildings, a little voice goes off in their heads. They don’t ever hear that voice in Seattle, or Tokyo, or Frankfurt, or Oklahoma City. But when they get to the Big Apple, there it comes, unavoidable, unmistakable, rising directly out of their subconscious, speaking to them – personally – in a kind of fiendish, devilish whisper:

“You’re in New York now! Go ahead. Indulge yourself! It’s OK! (pause, then more insistently) Come on! It’s OK! Look around you, everybody’s doing it! It’s OK! (then quieter, soothingly) It’s OK….”

“Now the first thing you do… is get about a thousand dollars’ worth of cocaine. (pause) Or, better yet…. two thousand dollars’ worth! Hey, don’t worry about it, it’s OK! Everybody’s doing it! It’s OK! Go ahead! There’s an ATM right over there!”

“Then you go get a hotel room, a case of booze, and call up those 16-year-old Siamese twin prostitutes you read about in the magazine… and PARTY LIKE THE LIVING DEAD into the MIDDLE OF NEXT WEDNESDAY!”

“What, you don’t have the money? Get a cash advance on your credit card, it’s OK! Everybody’s doing it! It’s OK…. it’s OK…. (slowly fading out) it’s OK….!”

New York, New York. The city with so much vice… they named it twice! Because they were so fucked up they forgot they named it the first time! Two junkies, surrounded by syringes, propped up against an alleyway wall:

Junkie #1: (in a narcotic drawl) “Hey… man… where are we?”

Junkie #2: “New York…” (his dull response before slumping forward, nodding out, floating for a timeless moment in the nether world, then suddenly regaining consciousness, opening eyes, and snapping to abrupt attention) “NEW YORK!”

A modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. That’s where we are. Possibly the most decadent city on the face of the Earth. Where all your dreams can come true. No matter how twisted. No matter how self-indulgent. No matter how harmful to your health, or incompatible with your family values. If you’ve got the money, it’s all there for you.

But if you haven’t got it…. well, that’s where I am. An insidious hell-hole from which there is no escape. Where dreams of glory are splattered every day against the hard shoals of reality. Yeah, I still have dreams. Twenty plus years in this motherfucker and I still got them. Shit, I was supposed to be a star. World famous. It was my destiny. One of the top musicians on the planet. And I can still play, believe me. On a very high musical and artistic level. Just put me on the stage of Lincoln Center, or Carnegie Hall, or any top concert venue anywhere on Earth. I’ll prove it to you. I ain’t bullshitting about that.

So what am I doing this for? Peering out the window of my funky little studio apartment into the twilight of Hell’s Kitchen, looking impatiently up the block. When the hell is Taipei going to show up? I beeped him three times already. Sometimes he calls first, other times he just comes and rings the bell.

Taipei (real name: Tyrone Masterson) is a Chigro. He’s my 5 PM to midnight man. He grew up in Taiwan, the only child of a black American father and a Chinese mother. Still speaks fluent Chinese. But he’s been in New York for over 25 years now. And his English is strictly American Urban Contemporary if you get my drift. He lives uptown, drives a bright red Mitsubishi Eclipse, sells blow, and goes by the street name of “Taipei Blood”. A little play on words there. But he’s not a man to be messed with. No sense of humor at all when it comes to business.

“BRRINNGGG!” The phone. Made me jump. Hit my goddamned neck on the back of the window. I pick it up with a strange mixture of pain and relief.


“Yow.”  The unmistakable low-pitched growly response.

“Whassup, where you at?”

“Fifteen minutes.” Click.


Whew! That’s a load off my mind. At least I won’t have to go gently into this good night, as the poet once said. At least I’ll have a little buzz to keep me company. Fend off the boredom. Add a little color to the picture, so to speak.  If nothing else. Tomorrow night I have a gig at the Waldorf with Dick Hardwell and his High Society Orchestra. And as you can well imagine I am NOT looking forward to THAT.

Hmm. Twelve minutes to ETA. Let’s see. Check list. Got my straw. Got my razor blade. Got my circular mirror with the little chrome handles on it that I brought back from the tour of Czechoslovakia in ’88. When they gave us 5 times the official exchange rate for our U.S. dollars in their sad ass Eastern Bloc currency that was totally worthless (except for there), so I bought a shitload of Bohemian crystal and brought it back. That mirror came with a set of very fancy champagne glasses. I gave them to my mom. Well, at least I still got the mirror. One of my favorite utensils, actually.

I take another look out the window. Nothing yet. I know, he said fifteen minutes. Check my watch. Still 7 minutes to go. Look around. The bathroom beckons. Gotta take a dump. Jesus. I am as conditioned as a Pavlovian dog. Just the thought… the mere thought… of the arrival of the man is all it takes to get my bumgut workin’!  Well, make yourself comfortable. It’s the best seat in the house.

“BEEP BEEP!” Ah. That’s the sound I want to hear! I manage a hasty wipe. Pulling my pants up as I stumble towards the window again. Yes! There’s that red sports car!  Awright. Out the door, down the creaky stairs, through the tiny foyer and out the heavy security door into the warm humid night.

Taipei is standing by the open passenger door of his Mitsubishi. He is wearing one of those “ventilator” t-shirts with the little tiny holes all over – in lime green – and enough gold chains and jewelry to choke an uptown pimp. He stands only about 5’6″ but his muscular torso commands respect. As usual, there is a high-styled and heavily made-up black chick in the front seat. He smiles, displaying a gold tooth. Darkish brown skin slightly wrinkling around Asian eyes.

“Whassup?” I smile back.

“Whassup?” is his resonant bass register response as he pulls the front seat forward so I can squeeze into the Eclipse’s tiny back seat. “This is Chalandra.”

“Hi, Chalandra,” I say. “How you doin’?”

“Fine,” she says, without turning around. In a voice that could care less.

“I can see that,” I answer semi-charmingly.

Taipei walks around and gets into the driver’s seat and we start to cruise slowly up the block.

“So what’s happening?” I ask.

“You tell me.”

“Same shit, different day, man. I got a tuxedo gig at the Waldorf tomorrow night. So, I should be able to pay you real soon…!”

He looks over his shoulder with an expression that says, “I’m pretty sure you’re kidding but don’t fuck with me.”

I grin. “I mean, for the next one, man! For the next one!” I reach in my pocket and pull out a hundred and forty-seven dollars and hand it up to him in the front seat. “But I got to owe you three on this one. Awright?”

“Aaahhh,” he groans in mock irritation. He quickly counts the money, then reaches into his little leather case and hands me back a mini-ziploc plastic bag filled with 3.5 grams of shiny rock cocaine. What is known in the vernacular as an 8-ball. An Anita Baker tune is playing on the radio.

“Giving you the best that I got… baybeee…”

“So,” I ask as I examine the packet under the passing street lights. “Are you giving me the best that you got?”

“Ha Ha,” he says dryly. “Very funny.”

We’ve driven almost all the way around the block now and he pulls up at the corner of 10th Avenue.

“You going to be around later?” I ask.

“Hey. You never know.” His typical response.

“Awright, awright. Have a good one,” I say.  He reaches over and opens the girl’s side door and I squeeze my way out. “Nice meeting you.”

“You too,” she says. With a total lack of sincerity.

The door slams shut, and VROOOM! With a puff of exhaust the red car darts into the uptown traffic and is gone.

Taipei. Headed back to Harlem with yet another of his seemingly endless supply of finely tuned bitches. Taipei doesn’t hang out with men. Not ever. Doesn’t trust ’em. Not since some years ago when his then-partner shot him three times in the head and left him for dead. He survived that shit. True, it was only a 22 caliber pistol, but still, what are the odds, the chances of that? And he still has all his faculties, that’s quite amazing. The only trace of damage is that he walks with a slight limp. I asked him one time what happened to the guy that did that to him.

“I don’t know,” he told me in a voice that still sends shivers down my backbone every time I think of it. “His whole family disappeared.”


It’s dark now and I’m standing on the corner of 10th Avenue and West 46th Street. Oh shit! I realize I still have the pack in my hand! I slip it swiftly into my back pocket. Hope nobody saw that.

I glance down at the pavement by the north side of West 46th. Damn. Was there a parade or something around here recently? What’s all this confetti strewn around the edges of the slimy black curbsides? Bend. Squint. Wait a minute! That’s not confetti! What we have here is an amazing accumulation of tiny multicolored plastic stoppers… the kind they use as tops for crack vials! And there is a small mountain of them. Blue ones. Red ones. Yellow ones. Green ones. Gold ones. Purple ones. Orange ones. Black ones. White ones. Gray ones. Turquoise ones. If you look closely you can see a bunch of empty miniature clear containers mixed in with them. They’re harder to make out against the dark wet concrete. There’s a good number of different colored 3/4 inch square plastic bags as well. A veritable rainbow of dissolution. Man. This crack thing is catching on in a big way. Out of control. It’s a vile situation out here. A vial situation! Good thing I haven’t gotten into THAT!

There is spring in my step as I stride back up the block to my place. I glance to my left as I pass a long dark garbage can corridor between two decrepit buildings. Small flashes of light from behind the dumpster illuminate the silhouettes of two glass-pipe-smoking figures, sitting on the pavement, their backs against the bricks. Propane flames emitting from their one dollar lighters. Sad to see. Losers in the game of life. Well, as my grandma used to say, there but for the grace of God go I…

I accelerate my gait, and the rhythm of my walking is somehow inspiring my creativity at the moment. A little tune pops into my head which I begin to sing under my breath as I approach my doorway. It’s clearly a traditional blues shuffle, but imbued, I would venture to say, with a bit of modern sensibility:


Crack Vial Blues

Well, I’m goin’ to the corner
Gonna get me a vial of crack
Crack, crack. Crack, crack
Well, I’m goin’ to the corner
Gonna get me a vial of crack
Crack, crack. Crack, crack
When I get down to the corner
I might not never get back
Crack, crack. Crack, crack

(Stop Time)

Went in the back
Did a hit of crack
Everything went black
Thought I had a heart attack;
But I’m goin’ to the corner
Gonna get me a vial of crack
Crack, crack. Crack, crack
When I get down to the corner
I might not never get back

Doo, doot doot doodle ee deet!

© 1994 all rights reserved

Slam. Click. Ahhhh….  a sigh of relief. Back safe in my apartment. You see? I still got it! My songwriting chops are still intact. Despite the somewhat sorry condition of my situation. I mean, it’s not “Swanee”. Or the latest number by Hootie and the Blowfish. Or Madonna. But it’s got a little something to it there. And hell, I just wrote it in the last two minutes! You know there’s plenty more where that came from. I’ve written a lot of great stuff.

I sit down at the table. The Mets game is on the TV. Sixth inning. One to one. How appropriate, I think. I pull the bag out of my pocket, empty a good sized white chunk onto the big round mirror and crush it down with a business card. I grab the razor blade. Chopchopchopchopchopchopchopchopchop. And then the straw. SNIFF! SNIFF!  Aaahhh. That’s better.

So – you might well ask – who is it exactly that is providing the narrative here? Well, this stuff does have the tendency to make one want to talk about oneself. Endlessly, in most cases. In fact, the most common sentence used at gatherings of cocaine users is “Let me finish! Let me finish!”

But – since we are the only ones here – kindly allow me to introduce myself. I am… Barry Finnerty. Yeah, that’s right. Your eyes are not deceiving you. Internationally known jazz guitar player Barry Finnerty, at your service. Thank you very much.

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