I just completed the updated, on-line profile of me as a New York Times subscriber. Now the algorithm crowd over there knows my approximate income and my zip code, but when it comes to what we used to call “occupation,” they got no clue. There were boxes to check for Student and Writer/Editor, but none for Teacher or Professor. So I checked Skilled Laborer, which somehow made me happy.
Last night on the 2 train uptown I sat down next to a tired old guy with a Baltimore Orioles cap and an overgrown grey beard, he was wearing yellow linen pants and a Yankees jacket, running shoes and brown socks, he carried nothing except the Post, which I read over his narrow, probably broken right shoulder. I think it was broken, once upon a time, because his body tilted toward me, and not because he was leaning. This man never sat up straight for anyone except a cop, so I knew he was on my side.
“What the fuck,” I say, pointing at the page he was reading, that’s usually all it takes to collect a story. His name is Sal, and he drives a horse-drawn carriage in and around Central Park. Or he did, for 31 years, until an accident last month ruined his life. Another horse-drawn carriage crashed into his, threw him from the cab, and, upon landing, his left knee was crushed.
That’s his word. “Look at this, wouldja,” he said, gesturing toward the knee, “I’m swollen, I stand up and I wonder if I’m gonna fall down, it scares me, you know what I mean, I can’t work, what am I gonna do with this?” How long now? “A month.” You got insurance? “Yeah, I’m covered, but I gotta get back to work, this is making me nuts.”
This is a man who might as well be homeless. His face is already covered with grey whiskers that climb toward his eyes and crowd the bridge of his nose—if he doesn’t shave soon, he will look like an aged ape, all hair and appetite. Where you headed, I say, and he looks at me as if I just asked him about the cultural meaning of the summer solstice.
So I shift gears, Sal, I ask, are you doing physical therapy? He droops, now he’s feeling guilty, and he goes dark. My stop comes next.
I walk to the bodega at 123rd and Lenox. “Get up off that stool, this is America, motherfucker, you gots to be motivated, don’t you wanna see me, why’d you come here anyway, you come here just to see me, a real American, you know what I’m sayin?” The man talking is my neighbor, I think from 124th, I see him around a lot, the person he’s addressing is one of the Yemeni citizens who run this store, the poor man who’s trying to take a lunch break at 1:00 in the morning.
Well ain’t that America, I say, quoting John Mellencamp but twisting his meaning, I hope, and then my neighbor turns toward me. He says, “All this way to see me, and I’m a ugly motherfucker, no Helen in Troy, he’s gotta figure that shit out, gotta look at us.”
When I pull out my wallet, I remember that I have no money. And why not? Yesterday I gave my last Twenty to the guy who sits outside the Starbucks at 85th and Lexington. Why did I do such a stupid thing, you might ask. Well, when I came out of the place juggling a biscotti and a small coffee, I looked down at him and realized that the black suitcase next to his folding chair was larger than the man himself, he could travel inside the thing if he wanted. He asks me for change, as always, so I turn around to say I’ll be back this way, but what’s with the enormous fucking suitcase? He looks at me incredulously and says, “I’m homeless.” I dropped the Twenty on my way back: atonement for stupidity.
On Friday my old friend Mike Fennell was in town for a short visit, so I figure, let’s go downtown, there’s a watch to buy on Bleecker Street and some coffee to get on Christopher Street. We ride the 2 and then the 1 to Christopher Street, we have a beer at The Duplex, then walk over to Verve on Bleecker, where they sell mainly women’s shoes, but lots of watches, too, I have needed a new one for a while and I know exactly which one I want, so it’s easy to buy.
Then we go to McNulty’s, the coffee and tea emporium at 109 Christopher, to which I was introduced by my girlfriend early on, it’s a place founded in 1895 that is so fragrant you can smell it from across the street. It’s all warped wood floors and shelves, so every product for the last hundred and more years has left some olfactory trace: it’s overwhelming, and tranquilizing. Inhaling becomes a conscious activity, to be sure, because you’re trying to identify what you’re smelling, but otherwise the place could put you to sleep even when it’s crowded with tourists buying mugs. The people who run it are mostly Chinese guys with Brooklyn accents; the exception to the rule is a skinny old white guy with curly grey hair, but he’s just as cordial and gracious as everybody else. You have to watch closely as they measure, grind, and pack your coffee. Not because they’re trying to short you, no, because their hands move so gravely, as if they were blessing the host or performing some even more important ritual.
After that we cross the street to Goorin Brothers, Bold Hatmakers, also founded in 1895, just for the hell of it, and both of us end up buying hats, him a boater for a friend, me a white Panama, each a work of art.
Then a walk up 7th Avenue, trying to find a bar. We settle on Agave, not much of a bar, but it’s got a distressed aluminum countertop, unlike the Lenox Lounge, where we wind up hours later. I leave my credit card at Agave, not knowing it until Saturday night, when I realize that my cell phone has also disappeared. Meanwhile, on Saturday morning, Mike and I have walked into Central Park, watching the Pampers motorcycle rally on Lenox all the way down. When the heat got to us at 97th, we hailed a cab on Fifth Ave and went to 53rd, MoMA’s neighborhood, I wanted him to see the Cindy Sherman exhibit, but it’s already absconded, like the artist. Three indispensable tools of life as such have departed in 24 hours.
Happy endings, though, the phone fell out of my pocket in that cab, and was delivered to me on Sunday afternoon by the Yellow Cab Company; the credit card is at the bottom drawer of the cash register at Agave; Cindy Sherman is forever embalmed on the pages of the MoMA catalog.