Niger lived in a loft on the corner of Bowery and Houston, which in those days was a barren, go-to location for restaurant suppliers. At night, the streets grew desolate, most life extinguished when the appliance shops shut down at five. I mean extinguished in the literal sense as well, as the district was known to be dangerous. In those days _loft_ really meant loft, too, a barely converted industrial space with only makeshift heat and running water, habited in defiance of zoning codes. I remember tangles of markered graffiti in every width and color emblazoned on a metal doorway leading to a narrow metal staircase and up to the flat.
Niger, who was milk-chocolate black, lived there with Carolyn, who was alabaster white. Carolyn dressed in ivory-colored, billowing clothing, as if to accentuate this contrast, while Niger favored dashikis in darks and bolds. Carolyn was an artist, working on a series of silkscreens portraying stylized Egyptian figures in homage to the King Tut exhibit then in residence at the Met. By day, Niger worked as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art across town, but during his time off he sold Carolyn’s silkscreens at the art bazaar on the Met walkway. This is where he met my mother.
I was entranced by this god who shifted shape, defined by his very instability.
As the story goes, Niger asked my mother if she was an artist. “You look like an artist. You an artist?”
_“Why, yyyessss.”_ She wasn’t, except in the constitutional, or temperamental, sense. Or she was an artist of her own beauty, one could say: a fashion model.
When we went to their flat, Niger’s and Carolyn’s affection to ancient Egypt was not something I sought to understand, nor was the significance of Carolyn’s dressing in a turban and those kurtas and dupattas, and the omnipresence of burning incense in their home and, around that time, in ours as well. Later, though, I did surmise that the two may have been worshippers of Tutankamun’s god Amun, eighth Heh god of the Ogdoad of Hermopolis. Ebony-black images of the deity rested on their bookshelves and in wall plaques. Amun sometimes appeared bas-relief’ed in black stone, and as goose, or as ram, or sometimes as a creature half-man, half frog, or half-ape, half-crocodile.
Rather, I was entranced by this god who shifted shape, defined by his very instability. In our family, we were protean too. For the purposes of modeling, our mother had trained away any trace of a regional accent. It was the late-seventies, New York a half-second before the Beastie Boys. Race, religion, the accents we spoke in: if we wanted to be one thing it was to be what we weren’t.
As I was oblivious to any religion in Niger and Carolyn’s home, I was also ignorant to the romantic geometries of Niger’s and Carolyn’s and my mother’s relationships. Today, my mother says she didn’t understand them herself at the time, or at least doesn’t anymore.
Several years later, Niger seemed to my sister and me just one of several ex-boyfriends whom my mother kept around: she’d dated an Iranian diplomat; a member of the Freemasons Society; a PhD Tantric psychologist; an entrepreneur who was the namesake for a then-popular chocolate-coated cookie-ice cream concoction he’d invented called the Chipwich; an unemployed, dispossessed aristocrat from the Midwest who lived in an SRO and identified himself by trade as an “inventor.” From time to time one of these men would call, an exotic, cheerful, and avuncular voice on the other end of the telephone checking in on Jill and me or asking after our mother.
So it happened that I was home alone one day when the phone rang. A voice on the other end said, “Jill?”
“No,” I said. “It’s Lizzy.”
“Yes.” Those close to us called me Lizzy, while friends at school said Liz. Since he didn’t correct me, I figured this was a family friend, or in other words one of the exes. There weren’t particularly other family friends to speak of. I mentally glossed a list of names until I came to Niger’s. I wasn’t sure.
“How you doin’?”
This flirtatious approach was confusing. If it were Niger, his role in my imagination was protective, or at least adult. So maybe it wasn’t Niger. On the other hand, in the old days he’d made comments about my body and looks that had suggested a different order of things. Once, when I complained to my mother about men leering on the subway, he’d retorted, “Well they like what they seeing!” A few months earlier he’d commented approvingly about Jill, while adding about me, “This one still waiting to fill out.”
“Who is this?” I asked, finally.
“You telling me you don’t know?”
I still wasn’t sure. “Oh. My mom’s not home.”
“You don’t want to talk to your old pal Niger? Huh? Linger on the phone with me a little?”
“Well nice talking to you.”
“Stay beautiful, Liz.” Liz, now.
“Gonna come give you a hug.”
The second time this man called, he identified himself as Niger straight off. “How’s beautiful doing?”
Again, I wasn’t sure. Voices in my head argued. If he was Niger what did he want? Even if he wasn’t Niger, what did he want? I should be familiar and polite if he was Niger. Another voice berated me for allowing someone, a stranger or not, to inflict such unpleasantness, _keeping me on the phone_. I was the strong one in this family, street smart. _Smaaht_, people said. I was the one who knew how to get off the phone. “Lizzy won’t take the monkey shine from no one,” another family friend had once teased me.
The times were that way. Marty, our mother’s best friend from modeling, had taught us the New York Walk when we’d moved here. You held your center of gravity low, in your groin, like a man—which was difficult when you were also being trained to carry it up high, near your heart chakra, like a model. You walked in the middle of the street to avoid rats erupting from uncollected garbage bags and prowlers hiding in vestibules.
The New York Walk was a state of mind. Dawdling on the phone with this enigmatic Niger, or not-Niger, was in violation. So I chatted with him, perhaps in defiance. After, I had an unfamiliar feeling. It was as if something had been left incomplete, a story playing out somewhere far away in which I had a role, but I didn’t know what that was. I felt I was on the brink of something.
A few weeks later, Jill mentioned in passing she’d gotten a call—“from Niger, or not Niger.” I got a prickly feeling. Then my best friend, Jennifer, told a similar story, having guessed it was a guy she’d dated. In each case the caller made the recipient guess his identity. That was our tipoff—that is, if we’d remembered in the middle of the conversation that at the beginning he hadn’t actually offered his name or even necessarily known ours. We’d each spoken to him a few times before we understood what his scam was—but it seemed a scam with no object.
Who didn’t figure it out was Vicki. She got it bad.
Vicki told her story—delivering updates—day after day one bitter winter when we were all in school at Stuyvesant. We’d sit out on cars on East Fifteenth Street and share tales of our woes and of our yearnings. If there were boys around, we all smoked pot. If there weren’t boys around, we talked about boys.
Vicki was Jill’s best friend. Her longing was for a boy named Jack. I’d never seen this Jack, but I imagined him long haired, with thick blond curls and a Frisbee dangling from elegant fingers. Vicki was pale and willowy, achingly vulnerable. She reminded me of Calypso in her cave.
At first, Jack was just another object of Vicki’s obsession. I say _another_ because that was what we did those days. We cultivated what we called love but what was more often fleeting, giddy infatuation, generally unrequited except when we were alone at night, dreaming and indulging _What if?_’s.
In this case, Jack apparently knew nothing of the large role he played in the imagined multi-verse of Vicki. Then this situation changed in an unexpected way—though not _entirely_ unexpected, really, since their love was destined, as Vicki qualified from atop that car. Jack had called her the night before. _Called her!_ After months of utter ignorance of her human, deeply gorgeous, breathing and living, luxurious sensuality.
The phone had rung; she’d picked it up and heard a voice: “Guess who?”
Now, what a coincidence. And Jill and I knew at least, from training at home, that there was no coincidence. _Everything that happens, happens for a reason_, our mother often schooled us. The universe follows patterns of echo and harmony. So we pondered the logic to this situation. The man who happened to occupy the forefront of Vicki’s consciousness during most of her waking and sleeping moments also happened to be the man on the other end of the line asking Vicki to guess his identity.
“Jack!”—the word erupted from her lips.
I am sure that we ached to go along with her: To be _smaht_—street smart—was so uninteresting.
Perhaps that was exactly what Vicki loved in Jack—or “not-Jack”—that he, too, was impossible to grasp, just a voice on the telephone, substance-less as a drift of air.
Jack continued to call Vicki, but as things unfortunately developed, when Vicki actually sighted Jack he didn’t acknowledge their romance. By now he was calling Vicki every night. Every night Vicki waited. The phone rang. They chatted. We heard about their intimacies. _Intimate_ was Vicki’s word.
“You mean dirty?” asked Jill.
“You’re having phone sex with a stranger?”
“He’s not a stranger! I see him every day.”
Though in person, of course, he acted as if he’d never met her.
“The bastard,” said Jill. “Men!” Just that one word, that mono-syllabic explosion, was an expression we heard often at home. “Confront him,” said Jill.
“He won’t even look at me.”
“On the phone.”
When Vicki complied with Jill’s instruction, Jack told her that things were complicated.
“Complicated?” Jill asked. “Men!”
Jack, according to Vicki, continued to offer phone sex at night, and to withhold himself come daytime. Their love nevertheless deepened. Vicki began referring to Jack as her boyfriend.
“Confront him again,” Jill insisted.
Vicki must have known. A truth settles, drifting to consciousness when you are relaxed and cannot push it off. Say, while you’re sleeping, or when you wake in the middle of the night and say to yourself, _What if everything I believe is, isn’t. Then what?_
One day Vicki revealed more. She sat on that car, a sky-blue tanker with diamond-shaped headlights. I picture it now. Her eyes were so pale she was like a goddess—maybe Athena now, gray-eyed and fleet, staring far off. If the guy ever saw her, he’d never let her go. But maybe her voice told him that too, how she was wispy and ethereal and you wanted to grab on precisely because it would be so difficult. Perhaps that was exactly what Vicki loved in Jack—or “not-Jack”—that he, too, was impossible to grasp, just a voice on the telephone, substance-less as a drift of air. Her bright eyes watered. “His name is Hampton.”
“He’s not Jack?”
Jill—delicate, voluptuous, beautiful-like-Liz Taylor Jill; vulnerable, wounded Jill—pointed out that this was creepy.
Vicki said nothing.
“What a psycho,” said Jill.
“Yeah?” Vicki said uncertainly.
“How did he get your number?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did he know your name?”
I think by then we believed he was our caller, our not-Niger, though Vicki always demurred.
“He told you he was Jack?”
“He made me guess.” Vicki got far off again.
“Is he white?”
“No. I feel so—” Vicki trailed off. “Lost.”
“Is Jack white?” someone asked.
“Yes,” came Vicki’s answer.
Now, it was possible that to Vicki at that moment, a white voice could sound black. This was 1980. At our high school, code-switching was something we attempted with the same rigor we applied to math tests and chem labs. Which is also to say, though, that among this New York set, there would have been few to mistake the accent of, say, our not-Niger for, say, a white man. But perhaps Vicki reasoned that Jack was another of our proto-white-rappers, modeling himself, say, like Adam Ad-Rock Horovitz (aka King Ad-Rock), who wore our very own Stuy gym shirt in that first Beastie Boys music video—“[You Gotta] Fight for Your Right [to Party]”—or like Kate Schellenbach, the band’s drummer, who was in my year at the school. And well anyway, Vicki had gone and mistaken the voices, and history was history, or is.
The next day Vicki acted more sure of herself. “Just because he’s not Jack doesn’t mean I don’t love him. I love the man on the phone. I don’t know Jack. He was never more than a fantasy.”
“The guy on the phone’s a fantasy too.”
“He’s not ‘the guy on the phone.’ His name is Hampton. He’s real. A real person.”
This set me thinking, about our not-Niger, and the god Amun, and the way the other ancient Heh gods of Egypt seemed to trail spirit-like in the soundwaves when we’d spoken. I thought of the look of the torsos on Niger’s marble bas-reliefs, and of the smell of incense in that home.
For a time after that, Vicki would recount her spats and makeups with her boyfriend, Hampton. We talked about him as if he were real—though I think we all believed he was another “not,” a not-Jack, or a not-Hampton, or a not-any number of potential fantasy men who could flux and morph and become exactly who we wanted them to be. I am quite sure Vicki never met him.
It was many years before I came up with a reasonable theory as to what had happened. Mine was not nearly as imaginative as my mother’s, which involved a friend of Niger’s named Malik and black magic, or an accusation of black magic. In spite of her New Age affections, my mother was a Catholic by training, and had a side that was superstitious in the traditional sense. She attributed much to the Roman root _mal_ appearing in this man’s Arabic name, Malik. My mother also, around this time, was going through a phase in which she accepted sometimes bizarre and ill-intentioned conspiracies as the root of anything that was strange or wrong in our lives.
A while before, she had heard from Niger that this Malik had been casting spells by placing objects around Niger’s and Carolyn’s loft: splinters of fingernail cartilage and other bodily excrescences—“Weird… _stuff_,” as our mother reported to us. She thus postulated that Malik had in the meantime gotten hold of one of our address books and was talking shit on the phone to people.
My mother’s instinct was probably right on the count of there being a purloined address book involved. As to Niger’s being intimately connected when he was only implicated as far as Jill’s and my having both coincidentally projected his identity onto the mysterious caller (“Coincidentally?” said our mother), probably not. I don’t think Malik was the evil genius behind the ruse, but I do think there was an evil genius.
A decade later, I was attending Columbia University and living around Upper Broadway. An explanation came to me, struck me with the force of revelation, one night while I was riding the One train between the two Columbia stops on Upper Broadway.
The word _Hampton_ reverberated in my head, and I felt the stirrings of the revelation.
The car came to a halt at 110th and the doors slid open. A man whooshed inside the car as if borne by the wind of those doors. He sat next to me, spreading his legs so wide I had to huddle into my jacket to make room for him. He took up three seats, but his presence, his spooky charisma, filled the car. I had a flash of recognition, that kind of familiarity on sighting a celebrity—as if I knew him in a deep and personal way. I was also aware he had the aura of a sociopath, in fact understood he was a sociopath before I realized that, actually, he was famous. Only then did a suspicion dawn on me that he might be the man who’d called us ten years earlier and inveigled himself inside our private longings.
The word _Hampton_ reverberated in my head, and I felt the stirrings of the revelation. I knew that the name of this man on the train was also Hampton, because _New York_ magazine had published a profile of him recently and run his photo on the cover—hollow-eyed and wiry, broad shouldered like an athlete. He looked voracious. He was David Hampton. He was the notorious grifter recently memorialized in the play by John Guare, then at Lincoln Center, and later the movie with Will Smith—then just a rumor—Six Degrees of Separation. The story in _New York_ magazine described how David Hampton was still a presence in Manhattan, recently discovered posing as a Columbia graduate to gain entry to the dorms and get close to students.
I’d seen the play, which struck a chord because it was based on escapades of the real-life David Hampton that included hoodwinking, among other victims, Osborn Elliott, a prominent former dean and current professor of journalism at Columbia whose classes friends of mine were taking and with whom I sometimes interacted at school. David Hampton assumed identities, such as Sidney Poitier’s son, in order to take advantage of white liberals financially or sexually or in otherwise ambiguous fashion. In the true story, he identified his prey using an address book lifted off a rich kid at a private-school party on the Upper East Side.
So, in a flash, I knew the man sitting next to me on the subway exuding beauty and mania and desperation was David Hampton, and I suddenly also felt a strong inkling that he’d been the man who had called us. The markers made this plausible: the timing; his name; the social circle; the amorphous, black/white identity of our caller. Jill and I, and our friends, could easily have appeared in that storied address book. Our tale embodied the very concept that the drama professed: that there are only six degrees of connection separating any one random stranger from the next. Of course, maybe there had been another David Hampton out there, a Malik or a not-Malik or a not-David Hampton.
Today, the power of that revelation on the One train still feels real to me. But I also know that whether our caller later became notorious isn’t exactly the reason this all still haunts me. I am not after literal truth, but the emotional kind, something more closely related to how my mother’s own consciousness interprets the world these days, perhaps always did—vaguely, faithful to rough outline and the residues of feeling. “How it felt to me, that is getting closer to the truth,” says Joan Didion.
Our David Hampton story is a part of my excavation of Before—before my mother misplaced her memories and I started to notice them lift off her, before I then felt them alight right back down on me. I am their keeper now, their bearer. I struggle beneath their weight, and their wisdom, and the relentless presence of them, whether I care to or not.
Sometimes I wish I could have been one of those naïve people, someone like Vicki who so ardently wanted to believe. I would like to go back to Before, to live that episode again a different way, convinced Niger was calling to return to us, to come back to take care of us. When I heard his voice on that line, I almost believed this. My belief turned in an instant. That brief, flitting moment, I would like to have held it longer.
**Elizabeth Kadetsky** is visiting assistant professor in the MFA creative writing program at Penn State University. Her memoir First There is a Mountain was published by Little Brown in 2004, and her fiction and personal essays have appeared widely, in the New York Times, the Pushcart Prizes anthology, and elsewhere. This essay is excerpted from a book in progress about New York in the seventies and her mother’s Alzheimer’s, which has not yet found a publisher.