Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

GoodwillieBook Algonquin Books recently published Gotham Memoir teacher Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. It’s a portrait of the author as a young man trying to become a writer in New York City. Considering how many thousands of writers try to publish such a memoir, this one had to be pretty good to get published. And it is. In addition to writing about his writing desire, Goodwillie takes us on a tour of New York in the nineties and lets us tag along for such odd jobs as minor league baseball player, private detective, and upstart dotcommer. The New York Post calls it “exuberant and rollicking,” calls it “hilarious and addictive,” but why don’t you see for yourself?

In this passage, Goodwillie, as a newly minted private detective, sets out to bust the Mob in Chinatown.

Outside the fruit stands and fish stalls on Canal are buzzing like hives. It’s only 9:00 a.m. but the sun is already relentless. We trudge along, taking it in. I’m trying to play it cool, be nonchalant, but I have so many questions. We’re about to spend the day tracking the Mafia through decaying buildings, and I thought there would be some attempt at being partners. We’d have a cup of bad coffee and chat idly about wives, girlfriends, co-workers. But there’s none of that. Russell’s been assigned to this case for a few months now. He’s visited hundreds of sweatshops, knows this beat like the back of his hand, and that’s what starts to worry me. He’s so obviously a cop, he may as well be in uniform. What if people are watching him? Watching us? So much of life in Chinatown is lived on the open street, but the sense that secret city exists behind the markets and the mayhem is unmistakable, and it gives the neighborhood a claustrophobic vibe. We turn up Baxter and I start looking up at open windows, down cobblestone side streets, faces lurking in shadows—

“Take it easy,” Russell says, looking over at me.

“I’m fine,” I tell him. “But I was just wondering how dangerous is this? I mean, what if we run into mobsters in one of the sweatshops or— ?”

“That’s why there’s two of us.”


We turn into an alley and stop in front of what looks like an abandoned building. Then Russell opens a heavy door and we start up a dark staircase, the steps creaking out warnings beneath our feet. We pass old Asian ladies coming down in single-file. They move in eerie silence, like apparitions.

Somewhere up ahead, Russell says, “It must be lunch time.”

“But it’s only 9:30.”

“The workers get here early.”

We climb to the top floor, then make our way through a thick fire door and into a room as bright as the stairwell was dark. Before me sit rows and rows of women, pushing fabric through industrial-size sewing machines. They are all very young or very old, and their lilting voices rise above the dull roar of machines like songbirds drowning out crickets. Under the tables, almost hidden, small children play amidst the cutwork. In the corner closest to me, partly obscured by clothing racks, an assortment of oranges lies beside a shrine of small Buddhas. I turn to ask Russell what the fruit is for, but he’s speaking to a man in the doorway of the only office, so I just stand there watching the kids, who look up at me with big eyes, then look quickly away.

Russell comes over after a minute, shaking his head. “The owner’s not here.”

“So what do we do?”

“Nothing. We check it off the list and move on.

“What do we when the owner is here?”

My partner looks at me like I’ve just told him I’m a transsexual. “What do you think? We talk to him?”

Copyright 2006© David Goodwillie.  Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.  All rights reserved.

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