I sat at the bar and listened to Rooney tell us about how he used his crutch to beat down a guy outside of the O.T.B. on Liberty Avenue. He had recently fractured his ankle on the construction site he was pouring concrete at. God gave him six weeks of summer vacation and he was making the most of it by drinking and gambling away the disability check at the off-track betting joint. He told us he got into an argument outside with some guy about something. The guy shoved Rooney and sent him on his ass.
We all shook our heads. You don’t shove a cripple. No. And you don’t kick pregnant women. Or, steal money from the blind. Even we knew that.
“So I get up, take my crutch, and bring it down on this stupid fuck. Vaboom! And down he went,” he grinned, “Almost rolled out into the traffic on Woodhaven.”
We roared in approval. I held up my pint, “Well played, sir.”
The bartender put a beer down in front of him and knocked on the bar. “I hope you took his head off, Rooney,” she said.
“Nah, I just hit him, right here in the neck bone,” he said, indicating with a chop. That showed restraint, I thought, I’d probably head-hunt. Rooney really was a nice guy.
“Then I kicked him in the face as he was trying to get up, but only once, because I had to hop on my bad foot to do it. There was also a cop down the street, so I didn’t want to like murder the guy. I have to be at my niece’s christening in New Jersey next week.”
“The clavicle” Jimmy Shannon said, “That’s the clavicle.”
“What-the-fuck ever, Jimmy!
“Finish the story, for chrissakes!”
“So the guy gets up and runs over to the cop standing across the street and starts to tell on me, you know? He started the shit and then goes running to the cops when he gets his ass kicked!” More shaking heads. Dirty punk-ass cry-baby bitch snitch.
“Now the cop crosses the street with this guy, and I’m thinking ‘oh fuck!’ right? The guy is screaming and crying about assault with a deadly weapon and how he already had a bad neck. The cop holds up a hand to shut him up and tells him he saw the whole thing. ‘You alright?’ he asks me. ‘Yeah Officer, nothing but a bruised ass bone.’
“That’s the coccyx.”
Jimmy Shannon seemed to be proud about knowing all the bone names. Good for him. Anything that makes people feel better about themselves, I say.
Rooney picked up his beer and took a hit. “The cop looks at me and asks ‘Do you want to press charges?’ He’s asking me this!” We all laughed. “So I ask him, “Well Officer, it depends on if you would rather be inside an air-conditioned office doing paper work,’ You know, give him the option of getting off the street, right?”
Very decent. Rooney was like that. Always thinking about the other guy.
“The cop thinks it over. ‘I really hate paperwork’ he says. Okay then, we both decide to let the guy go,” Rooney cracked up, “You see, I work with law enforcement now.”
“Cleaning up the streets with your crutch!” someone yelled.
“Using a weapon is a crutch, Rooney!”
“What’s the other guy doing during all this?” I asked.
“Oh he’s going nuts. ‘I’m the one who got hurt!’ he’s screaming. The cop finally tells him he should shut the fuck up, and be glad he’s not going to jail. ‘You don’t shove a cripple!’ he tells him.”
That’s right. Or kick the blind. Or steal from pregnant women. Even I knew that. Too bad the cop hated paperwork so bad. Still a pretty good ending. New York cops are probably the most alright ones of the ones I’ve had to deal with, which has been sort of a trail mix variety. I’ve never been arrested by a New York cop, and that goes a long way in my book.
“Cheers Rooney!” Big Joe said, raising his bottle of Bud.
“And cheers to New York’s finest!” I added. We all clicked glasses. Rooney set the crutches down by the bar and walked to the back to make a phone call.
It was eleven thirty in the morning, and the day was starting off with a bang. I was sitting at the corner of the bar with Jimmy Shannon and Big Joe from Kokomo. It was 98 degrees and 99 percent humidity outside. Those kind of numbers turn New York City into a big sweaty armpit–a rashy irritated one. People get crazy in that kind of heat.
When it gets that hot in Dixie they just lay around and melt into the lawn furniture. Southern torpor is thick as molasses in Manassas. In New York, people are more active. They go Dog Day Afternoon Pacino bat shit. This one was one of those Son of Sam summers. The wine bottles were getting thrown across tenement rooms. People were going to start killing each other soon. Somebody was going to pay for this misery.
I was in a cool, dark tavern, with a tap of Guinness only five feet away from me. I could look out at that city burning to death from behind darkened smokey glass.
Joe was sucking on a bottle of Budweiser and working on the crossword. Jimmy was working on his second vodka grapefruit and reading the sports page. (The Mets were imploding again.) Tommy O. was throwing darts. The jukebox was off. So was the sound to CNN. It was quiet and peaceful. Just the hum of the air-conditioner, the wail of sirens, the constant honking of traffic, and the thunder of the passing J train outside. Otherwise, very New Age spa.
Why isn’t everyone doing this? Why isn’t all of New York trying to get in here, to get away from itself? This is like a life raft of sanity. This is about as civilized civilization gets. Especially New York City civilization.
I was in New York because my friend Dave got a job producing an album, he was going to be in the city recording, but he wanted me to hang out and do the degenerate rock thing. He was also going to introduce me to some woman editor for Spin magazine. Dave had deflowered her back in Texas so we both figured that was enough bona fides for me to show her some of my work. It sounded like just like the savvy career move I needed. I bought the airline tickets. Non-refundable, of course.
The producing gig fell through the next day. There would be no interview with the ex-virgin from Spin either. I was on my own. In New York City, all by myself for ten days, with absolutely nothing to do. Maybe I can find some adventure anyway?
I drove down to Albuquerque from Santa Fe, and got on a plane. Maybe I was drinking. I do know that I didn’t care so much about dying in a fiery crash after I’ve had a cocktail or so. I don’t remember being too scared about dying in a fiery crash that trip, so it’s possible I had a drink…or so.
It was an uneventful flight regardless, except for pissing off the woman next to me with a comment about her sensible shoes. I told her she must be either a nurse or a lunch lady and pointed to them. “Neither!” she says and then doesn’t say a word to me the rest of the flight. Okay by me. I kept having the flight attendant hand me beers under her nose, just to show her the rejection was driving me to drink. Like I would ever want her after seeing her in those shoes.
I walked out of the terminal and straight into a hot, wet sponge. “Oh yeah… this,” I remembered. Molten air. I took the taxi to my late grandparent’s house. There were still renters on the two floors above. Their place downstairs was vacant, but still had some furniture it in. Not like I had any use for it. I threw the suitcase in, and closed the door. I had some place I had to be. Biddy Mulligan’s. Nice working-class neighborhood Irish bar, filled with friendly people having friendly fist fights. Air-conditioned for your supreme comfort.
I had already made some friends there over the course of flying back home over the years. I’d get a nice hero’s return welcome, and feel right at home. If you know anything about me, you can surmise that it took a certain type of environment for me to feel at home in. This was that kind of environment. Gotta get out of the heat and into something cool and refreshing. Lemonade! That cool refreshing drink.
I was now on day four of what would turn out to be an epic drinking saga, a heroic struggle of Man versus Himself drunk, what the popular media would call a bender. I’d sleep in my grandparent’s basement because it was cooler. I’d come to in the morning around ten, drink a Budweiser, take a shower, get dressed, walk down to the pizza place and buy a slice. I’d eat it, and head straight for the bar by eleven. I’d drink until four, go home take a nap. Get up, Budweiser, shower, dress, pizza, and be back on a stool by seven. I’d drink until three or four, then go home to the basement.
I did this for ten days straight. Not easy to do. I owe it all to New York pizza. That little jog along the Trail of Tears, remains my all-time record. One I proudly recall at meetings. Not so much at job interviews.
It was so fucking hot that summer, I wasn’t up for sight-seeing. I had lived in New York. I had been all around the place and had witnessed a lot of interesting things. I loved it, but I didn’t feel much like pissing my pants on a blacked-out subway train again to see it this time. Instead, I would sit in a cool dark place and let New York City come to me, one amazingly insane character at time. Each one just a little nuttier from the heat.
That afternoon, I was talking to this guy, who kind of looked like an even more blown-out George Kennedy. He tells me he just got a job with a new company. He repairs elevators, and this company is great, he says. The supervisor is really reasonable, he says, and that he told him that if he drinks on the job, to drink vodka, so the clients won’t smell it on him. (I swear this is true) Even my drunk ass got pissed. First off, that vodka not smelling thing is bullshit. Secondly, he’s repairing elevators for God’s sake, not broken tampon dispensers in public bathrooms.
“Did I connect everything back? Ah, fuck it, it’ll be fine. Just sweep these leftover parts in to my toolbox and close this bitch up. Gotta make it to McGill’s before it get’s too packed. Better take the stairs down.”
Ever since then, I haven’t been able to enter an elevator without thinking about him, and hopefully you won’t either. “Otis? Is that the name of the company? Like Otis the drunk?”
Anyway, as we’re talking, this other guy sits down next to me. He taps me on the shoulder. I turn and look at him. He’s a skinny little guy in a white cabby hat, salt and pepper couscous duster on his lip. I had seen him around before. He was something weird, like a Moldavian gypsy.
“Eeelcahtric vindows no goot!” he says, and shakes his head.
“Yeah okay,” I say, and turn back to the alcoholic elevator repairman. Again the tap on the shoulder. I turned back. He’s holding an imaginary steering wheel.
“In dah car, eelecahtric vindows no goot!”
” Whatever,” I tell him, and go back to talking to Ray. One more time, the tap.
What the fuck? “Okay, so vhy eelecahtric vindows in dah car no goot?” I ask him.
“Ah, because if dah car go into dah vahter…” he made his hand dive down, “…eelecahtric vindow no worken.” He smiled, pleased with himself. Like he had figured out a secret deficit to a beloved favorite, like cupcakes cause cancer, or prayer actually pisses God off.
Technically he was right though. If a car submerged into water, the electrical system would short out, and you couldn’t get the windows down. You would drown and die.
“Well that would suck alright,” I told him, “Now if you’ll excuse me…”
I felt the tap again. “Yes? Something else?”
“In dah car, electric vindow no goot, because in dah vahter no worken,” he repeated.
“I got that, buddy, and I pretty much don’t give a shit,” I clarified.
This time I didn’t turn back fully because I sensed another tap coming. I waited. There it was.
“Is this something about electric windows?” I asked him. He nodded yes. “Is it about how they are the most wonderful invention of all time?” He shook his head. No?
“Eelecahtric vindow no goot!”
Dear God, I’m stuck in an Abbott and Costello routine. How does a person get so crazy? Did somebody do this bit on him? I spoke slowly and deliberately.
“I learned something new today, my friend. I learned that in spite of any ease that comes from using an index finger instead of having to crank a handle, the electric window is a death sentence. That in the very likely event of driving my car into a lake. pond or ocean, I would pay for my luxurious laziness…with my life. Thanks to you, I have this knowledge, and will now use it to save my miserable life. Thank you, very much.”
“No-no!” he says, “No goooot!”
“I give up.” I turned away. If I get another tap I’m just going to belt him. Teach him that talking about electric windows is no goot.
Tap-tap. I didn’t turn. Tap-tap. Tap-tap………….tap-tap.
“Do you want to fucking die!” I screamed, but when I turned around this time. He didn’t say a word. He was slowly raising his hand up, indicating a rising water level while mimicking the panic of a person about to drown. He did it in that over-the-top silent movie style, and it was so comical, so Cantaflas, that I un-cocked my fist and started laughing so hard I was helpless. I instantly went from thinking of him as an irritating nut-job to some sort of comic angel sent to brighten my day. I put my arm around his shoulders.
“You know what I think, my friend? I think eelecahtric vindows no goot. ”
He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. I bought him a drink. I even took his picture. I wanted to remember my encounter with him. It was my first small lesson on how a change of perspective made a difference in what I experienced. Even in my drunken mire, a spark was struck. The ground and the wood were too wet for anything to really catch, but I was being shown something.
Wisdom will track you down. Nobody can hide forever. It will find you in some of the worst places, too. People have seen the light from the backs of cop cars, laying in hospital beds, jail cells, or on the dirty bathroom floor of a Mexican whorehouse. It will find your ass. You will wise up, or die a miserable death. The longer you reject its promptings, the more insistent the taps on the shoulder become, and sometimes those taps come in the form a crutch crushing your clavicle.
Or, they could come from a delightful creature, with your only job being to pay attention and appreciate the wonder and joy it brings. That seems better than eating shoe and sidewalk outside the O.T.B. An easier softer way. Unfortunately my lessons were still going to be learned the hard way, and a real haymaker was winding up, waiting for me to come home. But that is another story. Keep it cool this summer, kids.