“I choose not the suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs but the violent jolt of the capital.” – Virginia Woolf
Sunlight. Chilly. It’s morning. Another day to get through. Just a few people, but they’re dressed for work. Rush hour. Every time the door slides open cold air slaps my head and neck. I must be on an “El”. Yeah, Mosholu Parkway. Four train going north. In Manhattan that would be uptown, in the Bronx it’s north. We’re going north, away from the City, that’s why there isn’t a dense packed crowd. Good strategy, southbound commuters ride north so as to grab seats before Woodlawn. I could use a nip but my pocket has no bottle. This car is heated but, this time, I wish it were the sauna level. A puff of cold still gets to me. They check for bums at Woodlawn. I’m clean. I’m shaven. It’s just that they might notice I don’t have an overcoat. I try to take care of my clothes but they fray and smudge when they touch the hardness of the street.
My overcoat. Dark grey, wool, it kept me warm. I was at the top of the stairs. I was okay. I only had a couple of nips. The bastards started to joke and curse at me. Gotti wannabes. Arthur Avenue types. “Hey, wino, get outta de way.” I wasn’t in their way. I didn’t do anything to them. I just wanted to get down to the platform. Then they started poking me. I turned and gave them my dangerous face. It worked for a moment, they backed up. But I was too vulnerable. They got pissed and grabbed me. I couldn’t move my feet fast enough as they pushed me down the stairs. My head hit the banister as I lost my grip. The bottle shattered as I tumbled, hitting the steps and the hard platform floor. My overcoat was ruined, torn down the side, sopped with wine and filled with shards of glass. I lay there for a minute, I was more worried about the coat than my body. I felt no pain but the coat was gone. The wine was gone. Those bastards walked over me. They spat on me. People coming down the stairs were angry that I was in their way. No one asked if I was all right.
Yeah, the sidewalk isn’t very good for clothes, their youth is destroyed. Mine, too.
Even when I’m clean it’s rain and pavement, cold and pain, that people see in my face. That’s what sets me apart. That’s what makes me a bum.
At Woodlawn we’ll turn – Hah, “turn” a subway? We’ll go the other way. I’m clean. I’m shaven. Relatively neat. Soon I’ll be in Union Square, I’ll grab some food then I’ll concentrate on a bottle.
The train stops, a few people get off and the southbound, City-bound crowd rushes on until all passengers, walls and doors have bodies pressed against them.
We’ll be here a while but it’s too crowded for the cops to check for derelicts. I’m in a corner seat. I can put my head against the wall – no fear of nodding and touching another human being, complainer, hitter, cop-getter. My head leans on the wall. This seat is better. At least it’s not the worst, hah, not the worst.
The place is packed. I move through the crowd of type-A people that are here to blow off some steam after a day in the trenches of Wall Street. This is going to be good. Joe G’s at the bar and he’s got these hot shots from our trading floor in a trivia contest for drinks. The usual lame questions came up but now they start with City questions. These guys moved to New York when they got their MBAs and now they call themselves native New Yorkers. Native New Yorkers! Joe G is born and bred in the South Bronx. He’s had as many years here as I have. He’s telling them how many bodies are buried under Washington Square. 20,000. They don’t believe it, they say he made it up. I interject, “It’s true. It used to be on the northern border of the City as a potter’s field. They kept filling it with bodies until they couldn’t put any more in. Then they paved it over and called it a square. A gallows was where the fountain is now.” One of the traders says, “I didn’t know you were that old, Jamie.” I laughed and said, “When Joe and I were young they actually taught the history of New York City in schools. So what’s the next question?” “Name the five counties of New York City.” I say, “Joe, let me take this one.” They say, “No fair, we asked Joe.” “There are three of you. I’m Joe’s partner.” “All right, go.” “Bronx, not The Bronx, Bronx, Queens, Kings, Richmond, and” I hesitate because here’s where most people make a mistake, “…New York.” They laugh and order shots of single malt. To them we’re the over 35 year old over-the-hill farts from the back office. They make a quarter of a million a year, they can afford single malt. I say, “How about this one, What is the worst seat on the subway?” They sit there, their Wharton brows creased with concentration. I say, “It’s not a trick question. You walk onto a subway car, you look around for a seat. What is the worst seat?” They shrug their shoulders. ”They’re all the same.” “No. You’ll agree once I tell you?” “Okay tell us.” I say, “The worst seat of the subway is the map seat.” They shake their heads and smile, “Damn, you’re right.” The contest was even, so the smart asses can still lay claim to their New Yorker-hood. This can’t stand. I scrawl something on a napkin and show it to Joe. He smiles and laughs, “Yeah”, he says. I toss it onto the bar and ask, “Okay, New Yorkers, what is this?” They look at it, their faces perplexed as they try to figure it out. “Some sort of board game?” I say, “This is chalked on the sidewalk and is played with bottle-caps filled with crayon wax.” With a snide voice Joe says “I guess they don’t have skellsy back on the farm.” They accept defeat although I don’t think any New Yorker under 30 would recognize it either. Fuck ‘em.
“Skellsy, motherfuckers! Hah, no pretenders claiming my City.” Oh, shit! Did I say that out loud? Oh, man. They’re looking at me. The lady next to me got up and the seat is empty, nobody’s sitting down. That’s not good. If there was a cop, I would be in trouble. I’m good, I’m good. I’ll sit upright and look lucid, hah. I won’t be afraid to make eye contact, I’m clean, I’m shaven. I run my hand across my cheeks. Stubble? Didn’t I shave at Gordie’s? Wait, that was two nights ago. I spent last night on the subway. I lost a day, another blackout. Fucking alcohol is killing me.
Still waiting to get going. Woodlawn, the end, and the beginning, of the line. Rush hour crowd, everyone knows where they’re going. Nobody’s bothering those sitting in front of the map. Overcoats, lots of overcoats, jammed together blotting out the light and blocking the cold. My head, once again, caresses the wall.
I’m alone. My kids don’t talk to me. Spero’s dead, Bugman’s been dead a long time and Paulie’s as good as dead.
Spero was my hero. Paulie was my hero. Bugman was my hero. Spero, Hero, Spero, Hero. Never thought of it as poetry, because “any new poetry, to be poetry, must not rhyme”. Intellectual assholes. How can they put rules on a form of art? Don’t they remember “Urinal”? Dada, urinal. “To be poetry it must not rhyme.” Yeah, right. Muldoon? Ice Cube? Thunder Road? Bob Dylan? (Although he stole “All Along The Watchtower” from Richie Havens. Richie told me.) Robert fuckin’ Frost. Fuckin’ intellectuals. Miles to go before I sleep. Assholes. No rhymes? Yeah, right!
Spero tried to be an intellectual but he was too real. He surrounded himself with self-proclaimed know-it-alls and was self conscious about his own thoughts. He was well read but just didn’t feel like challenging their bullshit. With them he spoke of art, champagne and boxing but beyond that, I fear, he didn’t speak at all.
What! Ow! Fucking kids with backpacks. “Get that outta my face!” Asian kid, Korean cheek bones, looks at me as if I’m strange. As if I invaded his personal space with my head. He looks like a good kid, but these days it’s just hip to be rude. It’s not only him, everyone’s got backpacks and instead of taking them off and putting them between their feet, using as little space as possible, instead, instead, these motherfuckers, he still hasn’t moved it. I push so he could feel it. When he turns, the backpack moves away. Before he can say anything, I say, “Thanks.” The pack found space in another crevice in the crowd and he adjusts his position as he rejoins the animated conversation with his friends. Hah, that worked out well, but I gotta watch out. If I’m identified as homeless, no matter how right I am, I lose every argument. The kids in front of me are conversing energetically.
Finally, the doors slide shut and the clean cold air slowly becomes recycled breath. With a lurch we start moving and the crowd loosens into the shape it will take between stops. Sounds feel closer. Conversations half-way down the car have nowhere to go, so you can hear their muffled presence.
“Okay, okay, this one’s good. There’s this linguistics professor…”
Backpack boy and his friends are reveling in their own intellect, probably Bronx Science or freshmen at Fordham. I’m sure they get their homework done on time and eagerly answer questions in class. Shunned by the other students but are cool within their own world. A freckled, red haired girl is speaking.
“. . . and he says, ‘In most languages, two negatives equal a positive, but in some, like Russian, two negatives equal a negative. But in no language do two positives equal a negative.’ And from the back of the room a voice says…” The other kids interrupt and say together “Yeah, right! We heard it before. Clarkson told it the day you were out.” One kid in the group didn’t get it, “So what’s the punch line?” They laughed and said, “Yeah, right.”
A perfect example of witlag. My invented word. The amount of time between the punchline and the laugh.
Ah, there she is, for a flash, my shrine, Yankee Stadium. I remember her when the façade was still up and Mickey hit it twice. The monuments were still on the field deep in Death Valley. We go underground and the sun goes away. Boston Sucks!
Yogi, Whitey, Catfish, Moose, Roger, Chambliss’ home run, Guidry’s nasty slider. Donnie Baseball. The legends of my life. Bleacher creatures, section 39. You could see the game from the 161st Street station before they re-did the Stadium. Derek, Bernie, Jorge. Andy glaring down before every pitch. 1-0 against Atlanta. Saved our ass. And Mariano, whoa, Mariano. I knew he was special when he was doing the eighth inning to get to Wetteland. The other Mariano would say, “We play today, we win today.” The Yankee magic was back.
149th Street station. Paulie and I bowled in a league at Stadium Lanes. I was thirteen, waiting on the station to go home. Thirteen was young back then. Leave-It-To-Beaver naiveté. I was cute, according to my teachers. (I loved Miss Becker, my third grade teacher, but then she got married and became Mrs. Keats and ruined everything.) I was also shy so it’s a wonder this meeting happened at all. Waiting for the train, I got into a conversation with a girl named Margaret O’Connor. She and a couple of friends needed to go to another platform to get their train. The friends complained but she chose to wait with me. Ah, Margaret O’Connor, thirteen year old, skinny, blond haired, blue eyed, I watched her lips as she talked. We both prayed the train would never come. I looked at her eyes, unusual because eye contact was never my strong point. I saw her smile. I felt strange, wonderful. There was a warm whoosh of air from the tunnel, the train was coming. A little awkward, she moved forward. I didn’t know what to do. My hands barely touched her as they cautiously moved across smooth cotton cloth until they were in the middle of her back. It was getting warmer. Our lips touched. My eyes were closed. Then something strange happened. Her tongue touched mine. Whoa! What was that??? Wow! I’ve never felt anything like that before. Our tongue tips touched again. I wanted to hold her forever. There was no way I was letting go, no way I was getting on that train. But my brother was whining, her friends were complaining, so I let go of her, our lips parted, I looked down and said, “Bye”. I got on the train and didn’t look out the window. In my hand was a slip of paper with her number on it.
I never called her. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I was feeling. With no sisters and limited contact outside my family, girls were alien to me. A week later, her friend called me with Margaret crying in the background. “She wants to know, do you love her?” I didn’t know what to say. In my house the emotion of love was strange and my Mom was standing right there so I said “Gotta go now.” What a dick! But I didn’t know what to say. I still think about Margaret O’Connor, the first girl I ever loved. What a dick!
Grand Central, Forty Deuce, now it’s just The Deuce. 42nd Street has a strange herd-like traffic pattern. Here, the whole crowd gets off and, for a split second, there are empty seats and the remaining few standees play musical chairs. Then a whole new crowd gets on and the car is as full as it was before. It happens every time at 42nd Street. The Deuce.
Too bad. Can’t think about stuff right now. This new crowd movement, new jostling, new adjustment of space has distracted me, has kept my head on the subway, back in my corner seat. But it feels so good being alone with my thoughts, my memories.
I’m sitting in River House, probably where James Taylor sat, and I’m watching Hannah, young, philosophical Hannah dance the dance of modern youth. And she says,
“Memories have no beginning and no end. They burst upon your consciousness like a firework on the Fourth of July.”
Memories. Anja, Paul, Amos, Charles Mc, Tony A, Mikey Soto, Ruby Soto, Marina T, Valentina, Stella the candy store lady, crazy old Mary that threw hot water at you if you sat on her stoop, Dr. Temerson, Lexington Houses, Marshall’s sister who died while getting her tonsils out, Spot and J.T. from the Marines, Julio’s bar, Lester T who stole a sanitation truck, Cousins Spero and Maria and Martha and Georgeann and Stanley and Athena and Tommy and Estel and Dennis and Stella and Little Peter, Aunt Toura, Dr. Kougla. Hundreds of names just flash by, pop pop pop. Memories. They come and disappear like the slips of paper on the metal lazy susan between the kitchen and the waitress in an old fashioned diner. An order slip is put under a clip. It stays for a couple of turns, then it’s gone. I keep wondering that when a memory comes, will that be the last time I ever think of that person? that joke? that piece of New York? They all come and go. Except for those months with Spero and Layla. That time remains clear and sharp, those memories a warm haven, the last time I was happy. Oh Jeez, what am I going to say next, “Rosebud”? Hah!
So much for my mind not wandering.
I hear an announcement. Muffled and indiscernible. Do MTA personnel go to school to learn garbled speech? This is one of the few things, though, that brings passengers together. They look at each other and piece together snippets until one of them says, “I think I got it. We’re going local.” Yeah, yeah, you’re right. And, they all feel pleased that they figured it out. Local, that’s not too bad. Only a few extra stops, 33. 28. 23. Union Square.
Screeeech! I can always recognize the metal on metal scream going into Union Square. It screams, I guess, because the station is tightly curved causing friction as the long straight cars push in. Added to this are constant warnings about the moving platforms that slide forward to fill the resulting gaps. The noise of Union Square is like no other.
I wonder if the curve of these tracks has any relation to the severe curve the trolley tracks had 100 years ago up there on the square. The trolleys would come whipping (whipping? I don’t think the trolleys could “whip”. Maybe just move as fast as they could.) around that curve and many times pedestrians would be caught unawares. I read somewhere that people would drink at bars facing the tracks and, with beers in hand, anticipate an accident they might see, bloodthirsty motherfuckers, hah!
I get off onto the Union Square platform, pressing into the crowd, others pushing behind me, barely moving forward.
“Union?” “Union Station?” What the fuck was that! No one, except maybe tourists, have ever called this station anything but Union Square. What a joke that movie was, “The Warriors”. It was filmed here but they may as well have filmed it in Toronto. One of the characters said they were going to rendezvous at Union Station and the signs on the platform said “Union”. How disappointing, they should have had at least one New Yorker on the set. It did have one classic scene, though. Haunting, bottle-clicking, weird-voiced, “Warriors, warriors, come out and play-yay”. But it was buried by stupidity and ignorance. It was painful watching the movie just to get to that scene.
“Warriors, warriors, come out and play-yay”
Jeez! The guy shuffling next to me is looking at me. He heard me and probably thinks I’m crazy. I put on my “What the fuck you lookin’ at?” face. He turns forward.
“Warriors, warriors, come out and play-yay.”
Gang members moving like ballet dancers. What were they? The Christopher Street Killers? Then they give us the Gramercy Park Riffs. That had to be a joke! The biggest, baddest gang in the movie, made up of dozens of the meanest black guys you’ve ever seen. Gramercy Park?? The screenwriter, that ignorant fuck, probably picked the name from a tourist map. Gramercy Park?? That’s the whitest, “old money” neighborhood in the City, all dowagers and sunshine and baby carriages, with their own private key-locked park. Definitely no stoop-hanging gangstas there. Gramercy Park Riffs? What a waste of a Byron plot.
I’m barely to the stairs when another train pulls in. Stairways. Rush hour. Atherostenosis. Corpuscles trying to get to work through a constricted path. I’m one of them. A virus without a job. Nah, not a virus, just a dead red cell.
When I get to the top I move past the stairwell leading to the L train. I choose to walk the few blocks to Sixth Ave. I look for a stairway going up, one lit by sunshine.
The L gotta be the most unreliable line in the system. Many weekends, the people of Williamsburg are trapped on their side of the river because of breakdowns or flooding or construction. I used to take the L from here to First Avenue to get to school. A friend and I once walked between the First and Third Avenue stations. And then there was the girl on the First Avenue station that went to the School of Graphical Arts. Graphical Arts, hah!
It’s getting nippy. I should have taken the L, what a jerk!
There’s an ad on a bus stop shelter wall. Williams Sonoma is having a sale. Chef’s knives. Henckels. Knives my dad could never afford.
Dad. Quiet, strong, understated, self-conscious about his accent. Worked hard. Many different jobs. Cab driver, waiter, all at the same time, but his main profession was chef and cook. He said the cook made the big meals for the day, the stews, sauces, roasts, while the chef prepared the individual dishes that left his kitchen. He worked six long days. No sun in the morning, no sun at night. Five floor walkup. Should have been tired but he was just quiet. I miss Dad.
Shhh, I shush myself, gotta be quiet. It’s late and kids under eleven are not allowed to be up past nine. Paulie is sleeping in his bed. If Mom hears me, I’m dead. I don’t want to wake her. Scared and shaking, I bet she can even hear my breath. I try to imitate the sound of sleep, just in case. Wooden stairs creaking, I hear the sound climbing slowly to our floor. His keys in the lock, I’m not shaking anymore. He walks past my bedroom, a slumped shadow, carrying a newspaper-wrapped bundle on his way to the kitchen. I sneak down the darkened hall looking to see what he is doing. Same thing every night.
He puts the bundle down on the heavy wooden table that’s in the middle of the kitchen. He takes off his coat and hat and lays them on the chair by the scratched and yellowed refrigerator. He opens it and the light gives him a glow. In the other corner is the old black gas stove. He picks up a pot from the stovetop and walks across the kitchen to fill it with water in the sink. With a calm face he lights the stove using a wooden match. After a minute, he puts dandelion greens into the boiling water. On the table he places a dish, a glass and a fork. On the dish, olive oil, a piece of bread, the steamy greens, some feta and a slice of lemon. He lifts the jug of wine, Gallo, from under the chair that his coat and hat are on, and pours half a glass and returns it to its place. He brings down the flat stone from the shelf above the stove. He built that shelf with spare lumber he found downstairs behind the trash cans. He puts the grey honing stone and a little oil can on the table. He sits in one of the four wooden chairs surrounding the table and I hear a quiet sigh. He squeezes lemon onto the greens. He wraps some greens around the fork and he sticks a small chunk of feta. He eats and pauses. He drags the bread through the oil and takes a bite and a sip of wine. He slowly unwraps the bundle and loosens the chef’s knives he brings home every night. Puts a drop of four-in-one oil onto the stone. Chef’s knives must be sharp. He picks up a knife and strokes it against the stone. shhht, shhht, unhurried, bread, feta, shhht.
I allow myself to be caught by him. He smiles. I climb onto a chair and just watch him. This is one of the few moments without stress in this house. I see the knife try to cut thin slices from the stone shhht, shhht. We talk in hushed tones. He notices my marble bag on the table and asks me how good I am. I say, “Not too good.” He says, “I was the best marble shooter when I was growing up in Greece. Come on.” Moving like cat burglars, we lift the kitchen table to the side and we kneel to the linoleum covered floor. I’m more important than his food and his knives. I love Dad. “I will teach you and you will never lose another game.” “Oh, Dad” “Alithia, Truth” He shows me how to shoot with the side of my finger rather than how the others use their thumbs.
“Watch ou’, ass-ho’!”
Whoa!! Oh jeez! Tough to breathe, huffin’ and puffin. I almost got killed by that Chinese guy on the bike. Oh, man, that was close. Take a deep breath. Damn. Fuckin’ delivery guys. It’s cold. All right, all right, just calm down. You’re all right. Get across the street and just keep walking. Whew. Okay, Okay. I’m walking. I got blocks to go before I eat, blocks to go before I eat. What was I just thinking about? Yeah, Dad…
He taught me marbles and it worked. Amazing, I never lost at marbles again. I was amazing. Winning all the time got me in trouble, though, just like the boy in the movie “Amelie” but I had Paulie and Monchito to come to my rescue.
I love Amelie. I love Audrey Tautou. Love. Back in the world, I wanted, I still want, to hug her. Amelie, saccharine but wonderful. Hiding feelings, trouble communicating, good deeds, smiles as rewards, wonderful, giving blind man sight. Her male counterpart had the same marble problem that I did. He won too much. His pockets overflowed as did my bag. The others attacked to get them back. He didn’t have Paulie and Monchito to save him.
All right, I’m here. Good, ‘cause I’m hungry. Okay, I’m clean. Just a little stubble, jacket collar flat, walk upright, head up. You are one of them. I walk into the “Garden of Eden” upscale food market. Push a cart. I’m part of the world. Look and shop, hmmm, are these baked beans better than those? Do I want one or two star fruit? Look, cheese samples, toothpicks. I love this gruyere but this aged cheddar is great, as well. Must taste them again to be sure. Organic eggs, pork chops on sale, olives. Olives and more toothpicks. Hmm, these Calamata taste good. How do the pitless ones taste? But shouldn’t I try the Spanish greens? Yeah, let me try those, too. Lots of toothpicks, no double-dipper, me. As usual these hard black ones are bland. Green apron looks at me. Must move. French Roast or Special Blend? Goopy, oily all-peanut peanut butter. Sarabeth jelly. Look, more samples, chips and dips. Which is better, the green salsa or the one with chunks of tomato? I better taste them again so I can make an educated decision. Whoops, forgot the lettuce. This gets me back to the beginning. Hey, look, cheese samples…
I leave my half full cart at the back of an aisle. I walk out trying not to draw attention; I want to return in the future. Gotta do something to wash down all these olives and cheese. The Food Emporium usually has fruit, juicy melon, samples.
Gray November day. Well-fed homeless guy. Just a few blocks. Pull jacket close. Walk.
Paulie, Dad, Bugman…, David Bugman, Marine Corps, Viet Nam, stateside. I visited his house in Erie, Pennsylvania. His mom made food and his cute little sister made conversation. Bugman and I were like brothers.
I can’t remember getting laid more than when I was with him. The girls just came to him. Loved talking to him. He wasn’t a slick rogue or anything, just a guy with an honest look, with boyish brown hair falling across his forehead and innocent eyes always ready to laugh. Hippie girls, with their headbands and long hair, found him fascinating. We played with their beads and they made fun of our haircuts. After sitting in a booth a while, drinking beers and smoking joints, they realized we Marines weren’t the baby killers the editorials made us out to be. It was understood that he was going to make love to the girl he was talking to. When it was time to go, he would say, “Hey, you two aren’t going to stay here are you?” More often than not the chick at my elbow was happy to walk out into the cool clear air with me, my arm around her waist. The glow of the night continued in separate rooms, or cars if we didn’t have the cash, hence I got laid. And everybody was happy. Ah, the magic that was Bugman.
Food Emporium. Wow, thinking about Bugman I didn’t even feel the cold. Okay.
Okay. Clean, Shaved, flat collar, upright. Can’t go into my thoughts, gotta stay here. Stay part of the world. Gotta make sure they don’t see me. Okay, here goes. Hmm, red leaf lettuce or iceberg, romaine or whatever. Mesclun.
Mesclun? That always threw me. Back in the world, the first time a waitress said, “Would you like a mesclun salad?” Did she know what she was saying? Anybody my age, child of the 60s and 70s, has got to be amused the first time they hear about mescaline salad. We would figure there must be some pretty healthy freaks these days, hah.
A little too long in front of the lettuce. Move on. Check out the tomatoes on a vine, deep red. Mmm, these turnips look good. What the fuck is a turnip? Never ate a turnip, they look nasty, purple, dirty, roots sticking out. No, no turnip today. Let me check the fruit section. Wow, samples. Melon. In November? Let me check how it tastes. Need another to completely assess. Hmm, no aprons looking, I reload, doubling up a new toothpick and quickly repeating. Refreshed!
Damn, an apron saw my last flurry. My upright posture can’t, under scrutiny, hide my face and frays. As I pass the “fresh baked bread” counter, after only one toothpick of sourdough, a manager-type stands beside me and in a low voice says, “Sir, Please leave the store.” Indignant? Crazy? Quiet? I choose quiet. Today I am too tired to stay in character and crazy can get me arrested. After all, he did speak to me in a respectful tone.
Once outside, though, his attitude changes. He grabs my shoulder and pushes. I stumble. He obviously feels his testosterone percolating, especially since I look even older than my half century of life. Would he have done this if I were 20 years younger? If I still had a spark in my eye? “Stay outta my store you smelly piece of dog shit!” What an asshole. I’m not smelly. He’s talking to a stereotype.
As I straighten up I stumble, again, towards a gentle Filipina holding the hand of a rich person’s kid. She says, “Get away from this child, you fuckin’ bum!” Surprised, I look at her and say, “What?” Two Puerto Ricans walk by and say, “We should kick your ass for talking to the lady like that! Fuckin’ bum!” I turn my head and I keep walking, hoping they don’t push it further. Fuckin’ macho Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans are okay, grew up with them in El Barrio, but every group’s got their assholes.
Dad and the Puerto Ricans, hah!
Dad came home one night and I snuck into the kitchen. The knives and food and wine were in front of him. With an impish smile, he spoke quietly in Greek, “Dzimi, I was waiting for the local.” Dzimi is my name in Greek, short for Demetrios. In English it’s Jamie. Dad continued, “I had my bundle under my arm like always. Two big Puerto Ricans [everything is relative, Dad was 5’ 9”] came and stood on each side of me. One asked me for the time. I lifted my hand like this.” He lifted his left hand high on his chest and further to the right than usual. He told me he started loosening the newspaper wrapping while he was looking at his watch. As they were ogling his watch and getting ready to do something, he quietly pulled back the paper. They saw that his hand was resting on the handle of a knife that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. In a calm voice he told them that it was nine thirty and asked if there was anything else he could do for them. In Dad’s mixed Greek he said they turned white and he laughed when he said that they probably shit their pants. Dad’s laugh wasn’t a “ha ha” but a self-satisfied “heh”. Dad. Understated strength.
I think I hear a few more, “fuckin’ bum”s before I disappear around a corner. I walk uptown. In a couple of blocks I see the weirdest fuckin’ building in the City. I love it. Whoever dreamed up a building in that shape? Beautiful. Imagine sitting in a triangular corner office? The headquarters of my twelve step group is in there. Picked up some literature, then threw it away. I stopped going to meetings, theirs was too tough a task. I heard there’s a bar down in the village, a really evil bar. It offers free drinks to anyone who brings in one of those milestone chips from the program. Now that is nasty. I’m amused at the idea but disgusted that, for a joke, they destroy the hope of desperate people.
I cross the street. Madison Square. Bench in the park. I look at the building. I sink into my sweet river of thought. Relief. Smile. Flatiron. Cold.
GEORGE MAKRIS is the author of the novel Grit.