Novel Tells Sad Tale of 'It Girl' in 1970s SoHo

Photo of Irini Spanidou

Irini Spanidou re-creates the late 1970s in New York City when muggings, rapes and murders were common in SoHo. Joanne Chan hide caption

itoggle caption Joanne Chan

Before it was a haven for designers and fashionistas, New York's SoHo neighborhood was more troubled than trendy.

Run-down and rat-infested, the lower Manhattan neighborhood was home to an assortment of drug users, criminals and seedy shops and clubs. Author Irini Spanidou re-creates this menacing SoHo of the late 1970s in her new novel, Before, the story of a beautiful young woman living with her abusive husband in a SoHo loft.

Twenty-five-year-old Beatrice, who supports her artist husband as an editor's assistant, is surrounded by men who desire her. From a lonely Vietnam veteran to a young heroin addict, Beatrice's companions give her little self-worth even though she's the neighborhood's "It Girl."

Spanidou's haunting novel spans three months in Beatrice's life as she grapples to find some semblance of self-knowledge and control. Spanidou spoke with Scott Simon about SoHo in the late '70s, and the struggles of her troubled protagonist.

Excerpt: 'Before'

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SoHo was dangerous then. Most buildings still housed working factories, many stood empty, and only a few had been turned into living lofts. Late into the night, pockets where new bars had sprung up were boisterous with life, light streaming out onto the street like iridescent mist and rock music blaring as one walked by. But the surrounding areas, often stretching for blocks, were all but deserted and the scattering of solitary rows of lighted windows did little to assuage a passerby's fears. Every day came new reports of robberies, muggings, a shooting or a rape. Just that week, unable to force open the police lock on the door of a loft, the robbers had taken an ax to the adjoining wall, hacking a four-by-five hole.

The eight-story building where Beatrice and Ned James lived had only two other tenants. One lived on the floor below. The other, a man named Perkins, lived on the same floor but had been in prison since before they moved in and they had never seen him. That morning, as Beatrice came out of her loft, he was standing at the opposite end of the hall, locking his door. His back was turned to her and he could not see or hear her through the loud music coming from downstairs, yet his body perceptibly stiffened.

Beatrice waited for him to turn around so she could introduce herself but when he did, no word would come out of her mouth. His eyes stayed on her with intimate persistence, and he too said nothing. In a moment, he tossed his keys up in the air, caught them in his fist, put them in his pocket—each movement deliberately slow—then he pulled the watch cap he was wearing lower down his forehead. Though he was standing close to the stairs, he waited for her to go down first then followed, keeping a steady two steps behind.

For five flights, she had no room to breathe. When she came to the ground floor, she rushed to the door and let it slam after her. Turning, she waited for him to come out so she could apologize, but all he did when he reached the door was bring his face closer to the wire-mesh window. There was a tense alacrity in the stillness of his gaze, like a sex-dark glance that blindly knows its aim, but there was no desire in it—none she could feel.

She walked away. After she had gone halfway down the block, without forethought, she turned around a second time. He had come out of the building and was standing on the sidewalk close to the door with his peacoat unbuttoned, legs apart, gently shifting his weight. He had taken his cap off and was holding it between his palms, folding it up in a roll, unfolding it, eyes down, intent on the task. He was aware she was staring—there was something too alert, too inexpressive about his face. That he had known she would stop and look back at him she was as sure.

She didn't know what he had been in prison for. All she and Ned knew about him was his name, which was scrawled on the mailbox next to theirs with jagged characters that did not connect, in the manner a child first learns to write. Still, knowing his name had lent some substance to their thoughts about him. And they had thought about him a great deal. The two lofts were connected by double glass-paneled doors, which were blocked with an armoire on their side. The armoire did not clear the overhanging transom, and this chink in the dividing wall annulled any sense of privacy and safety that comes from a solidly delineated interior space. It was like living on a stage with the curtain always a sliver open, the seats dark and empty, and the play interminably on. Even after they had become accustomed to the situation, the silent, dreary emptiness of a place that has gone long unlived in continued to seep through from the other side.

Last night, for the first time, a light had sliced through, but the silence had remained palpably intrusive—an eerie presence their voices floated in. After they'd gone to bed, they'd heard Perkins pace endlessly back and forth. His footsteps had echoed through the night, and Beatrice had been unable to sleep. The lull when the pacing would momentarily stop had been hardest for her to bear. His presence had seemed stealthy and all the more pervasive then, and Ned's steady, rhythmic breathing had been a wall hemming her in, without giving her shelter.

Sudden, she now thought as she walked on. When something warily anticipated actually happened, it always seemed sudden—like loud thunder after lightning struck.

She was twenty-five, slender, with curly brown hair and delicate, harmonious features: high cheekbones, wide-spaced gray eyes, evenly shaped thin lips. It was not immediately apparent how strong her intelligence was; in part, because she was too beautiful to create a deeper impression; in part, because her eyes had a languor, a dreamy haze to them.

At this point she didn't know what to make of Perkins. She had an uncanny ability to form accurate first impressions—her imagination riding over intuition's gaps, if at times with too overblown a flourish—but they took time to surface in the articulate part of her mind. All she had now was a feeling about him—of fear and a murky sexual attraction—that she couldn't pry apart from a deeper, vague foreboding.

It was a Sunday and the streets, normally packed with trucks, were empty. It was like walking through a ghost town. In the bright sunshine, the buildings rose off the pavement in a shimmer of pale yellow light, their windows, opaque with years of grime and dust, glinting in the sun like dark, tinted glass. There was no one outside, no car passing by. It wasn't till she reached the narrow streets of Little Italy that there was noise—the slow traffic of a Sunday morning, people milling about. Trash cans, the sidewalks, rolled-down store gates were covered with graffiti, peace signs and antiwar slogans. They had become a permanent part of the landscape in a way that one saw them and no longer noticed, but her eye was caught by a placard planted in the small plot around a tree like a makeshift cross marking a grave. It read, RESIST!!!

Alongside, the ground-floor window of a tenement had been set up as a shrine to a soldier killed in Vietnam. His photograph, concave and yellowed at the edges, stood between a paper flag and a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was a headshot, blown up from a much smaller picture and blurry, the face of a man no more than twenty. Smoke from the small votive candle had darkened the outer edges of the windowpane but the part of the glass in front of the photograph was clear and it seemed as if the dead man was staring out on the street, at life as it went on without him.

Beatrice felt a pervasive sadness, his intangible presence. In some years, those who knew him will no longer be able to imagine him alive, she thought. This photograph would be all that remained—immortalized, the sad yearning in his eyes, his life no more than the sound of his name, the time it took to say it.

It was early February, a clear, chilly day. Sunlight gleamed bright around the naked branches of the trees, the twigs quivered silver-white. For a moment she had no sense of a substance bracing the life around her. If consciousness persisted after death, the world would appear immaterial, in all its tumult, static—just like this. How is it real, she thought, this beauty? How was it real, walking unharmed in bright sunshine, while men were dying in the war every moment? Often she had this feeling, of dread and numbing disbelief. They who protested the war had righteousness and rage to hold them up. She did not take part in protests.

As she started walking again, a black Oldsmobile drove by, the Who blaring out the window:

You hold the gun and I hold the wound

And we stand looking in each other's eyes

The song resounded down the street full-blown and near, then far and dying away. Ned had not once crossed her mind till this moment.

As Beatrice came close to Faye Knowles's building, she walked slower, with reluctance. She and Faye were childhood friends. The friendship had been foisted on them by their parents, who were themselves close friends and had forced the two girls to do everything, go everywhere together since they were toddlers. They couldn't be more different in personality and temperament, and didn't get along. Had they stayed in Illinois, where they grew up, they would have drifted apart, but here, like exiles in a foreign land, they'd held to each other fast. Even so, it was a tortuous friendship, and in the last few months the strain between them had been rapidly growing.

Beatrice wished she had not agreed to go over but walked on doggedly, believing she was bound by her word and only dimly acknowledging that she was compelled by fear. It didn't stand to reason, but intuitively she believed that everything one did in life hung together like cardboard pieces of a puzzle, and if a single piece were taken out, they would all come loose. Willing any change caused her too much anxiety. If she undid one thing, she thought, she'd have to undo them all. There'd be nothing left to hold on to. Better trapped than out on a limb alone.

After taking a deep breath, she rang the bell.

Faye opened the door and stood with her head bent back and to the side, her arms akimbo, hands on her hips. "You're late," she said, batting her lashes.

She was barefoot and wearing only a bra and a half-slip. Last night's mascara bled in black, viscous circles around her eyes.

"You're not dressed yet," Beatrice said, looking away.

"Getting there."

Faye walked down the long corridor, swaying her hips.

In the living room, the air was thick with stale cigarette smoke. The curtains over the windows were drawn, the silk-shaded lamps on the side tables still on from the night before. An empty wine bottle and two long-stemmed fluted glasses—one of them lying in a puddle of caked red wine—sat on the marble coffee table.

"How did it go?" Beatrice said, looking at the trail of discarded clothes that led from the couch to the bedroom door.

"It went . . . He didn't spend the night, if that's what you mean."

"Did he say anything?"

"He" was Ivan Ross, a record producer. Faye was an actress. She was starting to have some success, playing an evil seductress in As the World Turns, and had been trying to showcase her voice, with no luck as yet.

"He'll give me the show. One night, but he'll advertise."

"That's good then?"

"One night . . ."

"It's something."

"Everything's something."

Beatrice threw her coat over the Chippendale chair by the sideboard. The living room was decorated in Faye's mother's taste for opulent comfort and ostentatious grace. Except for the bedroom, which remained Faye's inviolable domain, the apartment was furnished with things chosen and paid for by her mother, and was like a microcosm of the world in which Beatrice and Faye had grown up.

"Where are we going?"

Faye lit a cigarette. "I thought we'd try Moss." Inhaling in quick short puffs, she looked at Beatrice's miniskirt and skintight, tie-dyed T-shirt, her high boots and fishnet stockings. "Don't you look hot to trot," she said, her eyes gliding over Beatrice's legs then lifting to her braless small breasts.

"Cut it out, Faye."

But Faye continued to stare at Beatrice's breasts a moment longer. "How are you doing, Trixie?" she said in a low, soft voice.

"I'm doing fine." She stressed "fine" with so much vehemence it sounded like spite.

"If you do any finer, let me know. I'll worry," Faye said, reverting to her usual sarcastic tone.

Beatrice followed her into the bedroom.

The floor here was almost impassable amidst clothes—whole outfits and dirty underwear—shoes, play scripts, copies of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, empty shopping bags, crumpled wrapping paper and various trash. In the midst of it all lay an open overnight suitcase. It had lain there since New Year's, when Faye had flown to Saint Bart's for two days.

"What man could ever put up with this mess?"

"What man, indeed," Faye said flatly.

She was a redhead, tall, hefty, and lithe, big-breasted, large-hipped, and had a broad face with sensuous, if coarse, prominent features: a wide, full mouth, large, keen green eyes, and a flat-bridged nose. When she was alone she slumped, but in the presence of anyone, including children, she flaunted her body with flirty swagger.

"Ah, well . . ." she said after a moment of bleak, tense silence. "Let them get the neatness they need from their wives, I say."

She sat at the vanity table, cleaned up the smudges around her eyes, added fresh mascara, then got up and, staring at Beatrice, doused herself with perfume—splashing it and patting it dry, her hand slow between and under her breasts, lingering down the thighs.

"Giving myself a French bath," she said.

Beatrice sat down at the edge of the bed. On the wall behind her, hanging over the bed, was a photograph of Faye in the nude, taken by an on-and-off lover of hers named Sarah Dienst. Sarah worked large scale, solely in black and white. This particular photograph took up most of the wall. In it, Faye was reclining on her side, arm bent at the elbow, head resting on the palm of her hand. The print had been overexposed and airbrushed, so that white blurred into black as if the picture had been shot through mist. Next to it, near the end of the wall and half hidden behind the door, was a painting of Ned's, given to her in return for an unpaid loan. He had painted it two days after his grandmother died, and it was of her empty room: a straight-back wooden chair in front of a blank gray wall, a narrow window off to the side, a rectangle of sunlight on the bare floor.

"This?" Faye held a bright green sweater under her chin. "I think it brings out my eyes."

"Get on with it."

"Does it make my skin look yellow?"

"No," Beatrice said without looking at her.

"I think I'll wear black. I think I'll wear my black leather pants and that silk thing Daddy sent from Paris."

"I'm going to wait outside."

Excerpted from Before by Irini Spanidou Copyright © 2007 by Irini Spanidou. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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