We spent the second half of 1996 flat broke, working entry-level internships and retail gigs. We shared one enamel pan and one aluminum pot which we used daily on our two-burner hotplate…
My friend Steve is an early-bird and a perfectionist. He measures the tops of his side-tables and cabinets to mathematically determine the ideal location for a-framed photos, cups and plates, and general keepsakes from his extensive travels around the world. His wife Rachel is the polar opposite. She sleeps late, misplaces papers, and keeps things simple. When they met, they joked that their relationship was doomed, but they had been married twenty years when they decided to travel to a secluded, off-the-grid, beach-hut thirty miles south of Cancun.
On the fourth night of their trip, they were sitting on wooden stools at the local “bar.” They shared small shots of tequila with similar sized glassed of lime juice and tomato juice. They’d sip one, then the other, then trade them. They giggled at their joy over these small glasses. Steve lifted one above his head to find the brand, but couldn’t tell if what he saw was a word or a haphazard scratch along the bottom.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, slightly tipsy, “Let’s enjoy this moment.”
“Maybe I’ll buy the glass from this bar, to take home with us.”
“Why bother, we’ll just have to come back.”
Sometime later that night, after a few more small glasses of tequila, lime juice and tomato juice they sauntered back to their unwired beach hut. His arms around her waist. Hers around his shoulders. He stooped slightly to the left to allow her arms to fully cross his neck. They passed through the beaded doorway and fell into the hard and dusty mattress.
“Looks like its going to be anther beautiful day tomorrow,” Steve said, “I think I’ll get up early to see the sunset.”
The next morning was their fifth morning at the hut. Starting with the first full day, Steve would wake up early, unfurl a woven mat at a specific spot on the beach near the ocean, practice yoga and then swim in the tranquil clear water until he reached the invisible line of the mouth of the small bay where the hut was situated. The bay had two shoulders nearly equidistant from the hut. The area could have been called “Half-Moon” bay as the bay was nearly a true half moon. He would swim until he reached the invisible edge of the half-moon.
As planned, Steve woke a little bit early in order to catch the sunrise as he practiced his yoga. He laid out his mat, exercised through his routine, and walked deliberately in a straight line towards the ocean, aiming for the midway point between the bay’s shoulders.
The water was not cold, but refreshing. He loved the caribbean for its warm and clear waters. Once he was up to his waist in the water he dove in with his hands then his head and began his freestyle stroke, counting his breaths. He thought of his swimming as a mediation where he would vacate his mind of any extra thought beyond his breathing and strokes in groups of ten. He’d count up to ten, then start again. He would often unintentionally insert the word “zero” as a halfway between ten and one, but he worked to release this thought as well.
He was deep in his meditation, enjoying the water, the air as it entered his lungs, the air as he blew the bubbles into the water. The warmth of the new sun on his back and legs and on the side of his face when he took a breath. It was during one of these breaths where the sun hit his face that he realized he didn’t see the left shoulder of the bay in his peripheral vision. He halted his swimming, looking straight out into the ocean, and he didn’t see either shoulder of the bay in his periphery. He burst around to look back at the beach and then he knew. He had been pulled outside of the bay by a quiet tide. He was nearly four of five times further out in the water than he typically would be and he could tell he was being pulled further out.
He could barely see the small hut. He didn’t see any boats within the horizon either or else he would have started yelling. He floated there, treading water, looking in all directions for something to help him gage the distance he had traveled and at what trajectory he was moving further away.
After what he thought was five minute he tried to swim back, paddling his body at angles to the shore as he had learned as a boy to avoid the riptide. He swam for what he though was fifteen minutes, still using his meditation routine to keep himself calm, but when he tried to measure his success it appeared as if he had stood still. He was growing tired. His arms ached. His hands and feet were numb and tingling.
“Well,” he said aloud to himself, “I guess this is it. This is where it all ends,” and he began to cry, and shake in his misery. He yelled out for help, belting as loud as he could five times. Splashing at the water at his sides. Then the misery passed and he felt an odd clarity.
“What should I do now?” He asked himself. “Enjoy yourself,” he answered himself back. “But how?” he asked himself. “Back float.” He answered himself and turning and stiffening his body he floated on his back and looked up at the clouds. “Beautiful day,” he said aloud. He first started counting the clouds, then he started to identify the meteorological names of the types of clouds, then he started to think of them as characters in a play and wrote lines for them. The sky was a wide blue, the could soft tufts, the sun a pointed orb of hot yellow.
His back hurt and his arms continued to tire, to seem to turn themselves off, to not listen to his brain.
“What should I do now?” he asked himself. “Why not dive and look at the fish?” he answered himself. He turned his body, took a gasp of air, and dove into the water, not using his muscles too much in hopes to conserve his energy. He laughed at himself for the thought of conserving his energy seemed fruitless, but he decided he wanted to see as many fish as he could, and he needed his energy for that.
Under the water surface were schools of fish of all different types and varieties. Some scooped around his feet, others chased after invisible forces further down in the deeps. The fish would appear out of the invisible and then disappear out of his vision. He couldn’t believe how beautiful the underwater happenings were and thought about how many times in his life he had swam above these things without seeing them. He continued to watch the fish and then noticed how one group seemed to disappear behind something dark. He rose his head above the water and didn’t see any hint of a difference on the surface. He dove again and swam towards the shadow.
It was a reef or a sandbar or mixture of the two! He swam to the landing, wedged his feet where they could gain traction and stood. His head, shoulders and torso were above the water.
“I’m saved.” he said to himself. “I’m going to make it.” He looked down at his hands under the water, at how pale and wide they looked. He raised them up to his face, splashing water on his mouth and nose.
A little bit at a time he’d lower his face into the water to find and follow the path of the sandbar, making sure he didn’t get too close to the sharp edges of the coral. He realized that this sandbar was making an arc back towards the left shoulder of the bay, as if it was the other half of a full moon. He wondered if the bay was either the former mouth of a volcano or potentially the site of a meteor landing.
He slowly and deliberately made his way back to the left side of the bay, and then walked along the curve of the beach until he reached his wife sleeping on a mat to the left of the mat he placed on the beach earlier in the morning. She was snoring loudly. She had pulled the mosquito net over her entire body and over her heard. On top of that she placed her wide straw hat over her face and neck. He saw that her wrists and tops of her feet were becoming sunburned. He walked the few steps to the hut, pulled a towel from the drying bar, and draped it over her lower half. She woke, and moved the hat from her face to make sure it was him, then plopped it back down. She spoke to him through the layers.
“Hey, there you are. I thought you had decided to go into town or something.”
“No, I was swimming.”
“Oh, I couldn’t see you. Did you take a new route or something? That’s so unlike you.”
“Well, good for you.”
“Yes. I guess it was.”
“Plus, it’s such a beautiful day, it’s a perfect day to be in the water.”
“Yes, it’s definitely a beautiful day.” Steve said, then laid back on the mat and felt the hot air wash over him. Rachel tugged her hand out from under her wraps and found his hand and held it tight. He gripped her hand right back.
Back then the cash registers at the Strand were on an elevated platform at the front of the store. The cashiers stood with their backs to a storefront-wide plate glass window on Broadway. Looking in from the street our loose heads floated above the tiered and dimly lit display of bestsellers, remainders and t-shirts.
It was a hectic and crammed Friday night in July when the air was heavy. We all wished for a thunderstorm to take the weight away, but the day darkened into a hot electric night pregnant with the type of muted trouble only found below 14th street. Behind the tall stone buildings on the west side of Broadway the sky deepened orange then red then grey.
The store was a mess on nights like those. Broke-loose ramblers and lonely half-baked brainiacs would find their way to the store to soak up the specific mojo created by that creaky space and all of those second-hand books. Billions and billions of words piled and pressed and mashed together, filed sideways in a haphazard but respected logic. You could hear the words reading themselves aloud. The words called into the night and the people came to find them.
There was one narrow door in and it was the same door out. People pushed and jammed their way into the store and onto the street. There wasn’t any air conditioning, just giant steel caged fans that buzzed louder than the music and neutralized most possible conversations. Occasionally you’d hear a fleeting break or a squeak above the drone. It was hot. Everyone was sweaty. It smelled like shoes and bark.
One perk of working up at the registers was that you were closest to the fans though they blew directly over your head. You could reach up and touch the cool air with your open palm. As a customer approached the registers they’d see the cashiers standing shoulder to shoulder, occasionally lifting an arm or two in a form of signaling or waving. Sometimes a customer would confuse this for a beckoning or a salute. They’d blush and wave back.
On this Friday Night I was at the far left register, next to the one and only door. I’d hang my right arm over the plywood divider between the cashier platform and the small entranceway to catch any cool air that carried in. That channel of in and out by that door was furious. People knocking people sideways to enter and exit.
“It’s a bookstore.” I’d remind myself, but it was more than that. It could have been built upon sacred ground, upon a long buried magnetic meteor. It was the gyroscopic core of a hallowed universe where the fanatical believers of “don’t judge a book by its cover” convened as far away as possible from all the pretty people and their dancing and their fancy parties.
I stood at my post, scanning the crowd and ringing up customers by reading off codes such as “paper,” or “review.” Just as I was finishing up with the end of my queue, a shoulder length mop of brown hair bobbed and weaved through the crammed aisles towards the front. The faceless figure wore a bold and baggy printed shirt, khaki shorts and combat boots. He marched a bit too furiously, headed for the the door. His hair swung back and forth from shoulder to shoulder like an upside down mop being used as a dance partner.
As he entered the tidal scrum of the small entranceway by the one narrow door he flipped his hair back and stared right into my eyes with a wired sadness and a mischievous desire. I was frozen. We were frozen in that grip of timelessness when strangers lock eyes and search for something that either isn’t sure of, but spark each to cackle in a laughter of lost friendship or common alignment of stars and situations.
I stood there, locking eyes with Johnny Depp and we read each other’s minds.
He said to me “C’mon man, let’s get the fuck out of here, we’ve got things to do.” And we shared a vision of loud music and dozens of people jumping from hotels beds to couches and tables breaking, tumbled buckets of ice slush and liquor punch spilling widening puddles into high-weave carpets, and so much laughter and rapture that everyone pees their pants.
And I said back “Dude, I can’t leave, I’ll get fired.” And the vision closed up like a wide plume of smoke reverse-escaping back to the bottle where it was born from. Then the bottle top sucked itself back into place with a thump.
And then he said, with a sad tear in his eye and a frown on his lips, ”I hear you man, but I’m gone.” And with that he lowered his eyes, ducked his shoulders, and exited through the one and only door to the store.
The cashier next to me elbowed my left arm and said, “Yo, do you know that dude?”
“Yes. I guess I do.”
“I’ve got friends like that too.”
We each turned around, putting our palms up to catch the cool fan air and for a few seconds looked out into the night and all the blurry faces that rushed by that neither of us would ever see again for the rest of our lives.
The sun was still setting early as if it was winter, and the high grey sky paled to pewter then charcoal when the street lights flickered on. The coolness of the ground seeped up through the lush green shrubs and somehow the flowers glowed vibrant and full. I looked out of the front window of my small house in Columbia City and marveled at the fullness of the green, even in the dark.
A light rain fell, misting up the windows. The heat clicked on, and across the water of lake Washington the twinkling lights of Mercer island could have been stars.
Laying in bed as the night grew colder I pulled my heavy blanket to my chin and thought about my work agenda for the next day. I fell asleep wondering if I had any same-day deliverables.
I woke the next day in the usual pale grey light. By the time I dressed and exited my house and headed towards my car parked at the curb I realized that the sun was out. It was bright on the horizon somewhere behind the trees, but it was bright and warming. Steam lifted from the roads and grass. There was fog between some trees.
Huh, I said to myself. Sun in April. Looks like it will be a beautiful day.
Riding up the elevator at the office building the half dozen of us talked about the sun. We each remarked on the beauty of the light and how it will warm up the day. Someone joked about taking the day off to enjoy it.
There were small conversations about the sun throughout the morning, leading up to lunchtime. Everybody ate outside, along walls and on benches, sitting on their bags to prevent the dampness to seep up from the masonry. The whole city of Bellevue was outdoors and there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit. The sidewalks were crammed with people strolling slowly in their sleeveless vests and waist-length shells.
Back at my desk, the sun reflected off of the windows of the building across the way. I went to pull down the shades and my office cube neighbors erupted with, “No way!” By 3pm a quarter of the office left early. By 4pm the office half had left, by 5pm there was me, and a few other easter-coasters who hadn’t yet been in the PacNW long enough to understand the high value of these precious daylight hours.
I drove home, back over the route 90 bridge towards Seattle and the light was radiant and heavenly. As I turned off of Mercer island and towards the tunnel that bore under the east side of Seattle the highway slopes down towards the lake. As I drove the light glimmered across all the small waves, it was blindingly bright. Mount Rainier was visible and present and majestic to the south, out of scale with the rest of the world around it. The fish swam to the surface of the lake, bolting from the cold depths and leaping into the sun. They sang and squealed with joy. I sang too.
The stars that night were glorious although the night was cold.
The next day, it was sunny again. My neighbors across the street were outside pointing at the sky. As I open the door to my car I said good morning. They both looked at me, muted at first and said, “This is so usual. We might stay home today.”
Half of my office took the day off. My friend, an ex-pat from Chicago tapped me on my should at my desk. He said, “You realize there are never, and I mean never, two sunny days in a row in April. It’s unheard of.”
“It’s beautiful here in the sun.” I said back. Over his shoulder was a view of the Olympics in the distance. Sharp and snowcapped. To my right were the Cascades. The Puget sound sat in the center of a giant torque-spring bear trap, surrounded by the jagged teeth of rock and stone. It was so breathtakingly beautiful I understood why everyone lived here.
Wednesday was another sunny day. I received an email just before I was going to leave that house that the office was closed due to the sun. The simple note from our considerate CEO stated simply that it was to beauteous of a day to let it slip by. Especially for those of us who were vitamin D deficient. She closed her email with smiley face emotion.
I went into town, everything was closed. The bank was closed. Many of the restaurants had only a few people on hand for staff. Caravans of cars passed by with canoes and skis strapped to their racks. I sat outside at my favorite bakery, sipping on a cappuccino. The cool air blew the swirls of steam from the mug until they evaporated in shafts of bright light that piled through the gaps between the buildings and the trees.
“You’re not from here are you?” The waitress asked me.
“No, I’m not. Why?”
“Because you’d be doing something other than sitting here if you were.”
“But I am outdoors.”
Later that day, back home, I sat on my my front steps and my retired neighbor waved to me from his driveway.
“Beautiful day.” He said,”Never seen three days of sun in a row in April. Maybe in February, but never in April.”
“That’s what I hear.” I said.
“There’s nothing like Seattle when it’s sunny,” his smile so wide his teeth glinted and shone. Up above a flock of birds circled and swerved across the bright blue sky. The day was so clear I could see their lined feather and their small solid eyes. They dashed among the tall green trees and flew out of sight, over a hill, and into the evening when the clouds would return.
It was a warm, muggy August day, last summer. As I walked home from the train station, taking the simplest route down the straight avenue that led from town to my house, I saw a couple in the distance. At first I thought it was a father and a daughter. They were walking in my direction, I was walking in theirs. They slowly came into clearer focus.
They weren’t a father and daughter. They were two men, walking with their arms interlocked. Their posture was similar to a father walking his daughter down a wedding aisle. They walked slow-paced, each step careful and considered. The taller, older gentleman on the left stood firm, head high, shoulders back. The shorter, younger man hunched. He was leaning into the older one appearing to take comfort in their closeness, until I realized that the older man was having difficulty walking. The younger man was supporting the older man. The younger man was wearing a robe, the older man was wearing a loose fitting t-shirt and loose-fitting jeans. They both wore sandals.
When they were within half a block of where I was walking it became clear the younger man was a buddhist monk, wearing an orange and rust colored robe. His head shaven. The older man had the undefinable look of age. He could be 70, he could be 80.
When we were within ten feet of each other I could see the older man’s eyes. They twinkled with a wetness that could be confused for tears, but were probably a sensitivity to the bright light of the day. The younger man looks at me, sizing me up. I could have stood aside to let them pass, but instead I said, “Hello, I live just down the block, who are you?” which might have sounded rude, but I did my best to make it sound welcoming.
The older man stopped though the monk seemed to tug at him to keep moving. The monk looked up at the older man’s face to check for a signal. The corner of the older man’s lips twisted up in a modest smile. The monk then looked at me and said, “This is Rinpoche, he’s a world renowned scholar, a friend to the Dalai Lama, a friend to heads of state. He’s a former monk, he was a monk like I am. He is my mentor.”
“He was a monk?” I ask.
“Yes, he decided to retire from being a monk on his 94th birthday. He had joined the monastery when he was a child.” Rinpoche then stands even straighter, pushing his shoulders farther back and begins to wiggle his arm away from the grip of the monk.
“Wow,” I say, “that’s a dedicated life.” Neither of them reply. Rinpoche continues to look in my direction though his eyes appear to be focused on the distance behind me. The monk looks directly into my eyes, then looks past me, as if waiting for my permission for him to continue with his walk. I think about 90 years in a monastery. 90 years doing anything consistently. I think on my life and the stops and starts, the zig zag path, the mindless commutes, and the daily routines.
I ask one more question, “Rinpoche, after being a monk for so many years, since you were a child, why did you decide to stop being a monk?”
His lips straighten the smile away and his face tenses up. He has a difficult time speaking. He takes a breath and his eyes shift to mine. As he answers the monk begins to take a step past me, pulling at the arm of Rinpoche.
As he too takes a step, putting him directly at my side, he whispers near my ear…
“Because life is short.”
I was at Five Guys burger joint this weekend, here where I live now, in New Jersey, in a strip mall. As I sat down and began to unwrap my sandwich and pile of french fries the Sex Pistols begin to play Anarchy for the UK over the speakers. In The queue at the counter is a woman and her biker boyfriend. She turns to him, poking a finger in his chest and says, “Hey, it’s the Sex Pistols.” He shrugs. I turn to Sheila, and she smiles back at me and we sing along, nodding our heads, sodas in hand. Our daughter asks who’s playing and I say out loud, “the Sex Pistols,” and she blushes. “Really, that’s their name?” I say, here, let me show you some pictures and I do a search on my phone. Then I get a little sad. Realizing I’m at a Five Guys in a strip mall and not being very punk rock. I think back to when I thought I was punk rock and all I can think is that the earth has spun so many times into the future that punk rock has caught up with burger joints. That the swirling of eras has blended into layers on layers of context and meaning and I’m getting all existential about meaningfulness and reality. I begin to wonder what if, what if. At that moment my daughter flips my phone around to show me a picture of Sid Vicious. She says, “Who’s that? He’s super cute.”
“How could you not invite me?” says the one young-woman with her back to me. She is speaking very blankly, strongly, in a near monotone, to her “friend.” I can’t tell if she’s being natural or practicing a line in a play. Her voice has a plain low note as if she’s impersonating someone. “I’m so upset with you,” she states with a silent pause between each word.
It was a sunny autumn day. The sun dappled its way through the shapes between the leaves, which were just turning from green to orange. I was sitting outside, in a prime seat in front of a local favorite café near where I lived in Brooklyn. Patrons pull and drag the outdoor seats around to create seating clusters. You really can’t get that far from anyone.
“I thought you were going to be out of town, it didn’t occur to me to invite you,” says the “friend.” She is facing towards me and has the look of a sad poodle. Her wild and long corkscrew curly brown hair covers her face down to her nose. She sweeps her hair away to reveal the soft tears that well in her eyes as she answers these seemingly prepared questions.
I close my eyes, listening to the much-too-obvious back and forth of their conversation and envision their banter as a one-act play, way off-Broadway in a poorly constructed stage set with cardboard props. The two actors would sit on unmatched second-hand chairs. The upholstery is threadbare with visible springs and stuffing and stains. The one other person in the small theater, who must be an off-Broadway maven with the interest to sit through this dialogue, would lean over deliberately and whisper to me, “See, the set is meant to echo their relationship.”
“Well, I’m not sure what you can say to make me feel better, “the monotinist continues, “See if you can make me feel better. You are not making me feel better and I demand to feel better.”
I began to wonder if this wasn’t a one-act play, but was some form of domination routine, a public humiliation that would be converted into something more corrupt later. The off-Broadway maven wags his finger at me and whispers, “No, it’s the underlying unrequited theme of our era pulsing through these two characters.”
“I’m not sure I can say anything more than I have already said, I’m sorry, you’re a really good friend, it was an oversight I guess,” the sad one replies.
“An oversight? I thought I was your best friend?”
“You’re very important to me, our friendship is important, please accept my apology”
“You’re not making me feel better.”
I open my eyes. The sun is glorious. To my right a beige-clad couple plops a short stack of faded paperbacks on the narrow table we share. She holds one open on her lap, the cover folded over and wrapped behind the main body of the book. I give the couple names. She is Rebecca, he is Duncan. They settle on a crossword to solve.
Rebecca provides Duncan with each hint, aloud, tilting her head towards him, squinting her eyes and I can see the spider web wrinkles above her cheekbones. Duncan looks up to the sky while mildly patting a shorthaired lapdog. I name the lapdog Cardigan. Cardigan’s attitude fluctuates between exhilarated tail wagging and face-hiding embarrassment.
Each time Rebecca asks Duncan a question, Duncan twists up his mouth, pauses in reflection for about five seconds, and then dramatically turn his gaze to Rebecca with a wide smile and says, “You know, I don’t know that answer, what do you think love.” He lingers on the word love, it sounds like, “laauuhove.” His teeth glitter. Reenergized from his passing the question back to her, Rebecca rolls her right shoulder from back to front, pulling up the sleeve of her bulky pressed wool beige jacket, giving herself enough flexibility in her arm to plot out the all caps in the available boxes.
“SERPENTINE!” she exclaims, “It fits!”
But her joy is short lived, she’s on to the next hint, reading it to herself her lips tremble slightly. She slouches a bit, with some worry over SERPENTINE as it relates to the next set of overlapping squares.
“What’s a four letter word for an all night party?” Rebecca asks Duncan. Cardigan wags his tail. Duncan raises his face to the sky and Cardigan hides his nose in Duncan’s coat.
“Bender?” Duncan asks the sky. Cardigan looks at Rebecca.
“Bash?” Rebecca replies. Cardigan wags his tail. Rebecca looks down at the folded paperback, “But it seems to begin with an R. That’s strange.”
I shift my head, slightly, to see if I can view the four-letter frame.
“What’s a four-letter word, beginning with an R, for an all-night party? Maybe it’s a typo?” Cardigan is energetically wagging his whole body. Cardigan looks at me, bright eyes, tongue slightly ajar. I sip my double cappuccino.
All of the outdoor seats at the café are taken. We co-customers crowd onto the short benches and loose-legged seats, each with our coffees, some with small plates of half eaten pastries. I notice, that they, like me, briefly shift their gaze towards the couple with sly bemused glances. Their heads do not move, their eyes do.
“How do they not know that word?” I say to myself, and Cardigan the dog seems to be reading my mind. I wonder if I too am moving my lips. He is marching his short legs up and down, aiming towards my chair. Duncan grips him by the narrow back half of his body, keeping him in place. Cardigan looks at me confused as to why he is not advancing.
It was at this moment that the punk rocker with face tattoos makes himself known. He was sitting on the stoop of the building to the left of the café. His face tattoos are subtle. He has two sliver faded green moons, like thin smiles, drawn just above his cheekbones yet set directly below each eye. There were some fragments of a tattoo that leaked out from under his green army-issue cap. It was hard to tell what it was.
He was laughing at erratic intervals. At first I thought maybe he was listening to a podcast, but then I notice he is half hiding a small bottle of local “Brooklyn” brand whiskey between his heather grey wool gloves, and it was halfway finished. He turns sharply to meet my gaze, he holds up the bottle for me to see, and raising his eyebrows, which lifted his cap, he says, “Want to embellish your beverage bro? It’s a fine whiskey.” I smile back, and shake my head. Sharing a swig would be an entrance to a much different afternoon than I had planned.
The local ladies from my old neighborhood would sit on vintage folding chairs in front of their stoops to take in the summer sun. They’d flag you down as you walked by as they always had something important to share with you. This one lady who regularly wore a bright yellow and white flower printed dress with thin yellow halter straps across her tanned shoulders exclaimed to me while holding both hands up, palms towards me, “Young man, don’t forget, in New York it’s easy to make friends, but you can never get rid of them!”
I notice the punk rocker is also intrigued by the passive-aggressive conversation of the monotonist and her friend. He tries to softly whisper a question to me, so they couldn’t hear it, even though he’s about ten feet away from me.
“Do you believe what they’re saying?” I turn my head towards them and they both look at me. One with piercing eyes, the other with a smirk. I then turn my head back towards the punk rocker.
“No,” I silently mouth back.
“Wha?” He replies aloud, holding his arms wide, pushing his head down into his neck like a turtle.
“No.” I mouth silently while shaking my head, but everybody sees me now.
Duncan and Cardigan both give me a quick questionable glance. Duncan drops the look from his face once he realizes I am chatting with a drunk punk rocker. Cardigan again tries to march towards me. I have the inclination to pet him, but I don’t.
At that moment, the punk rocker jumps up from his spot on the stoop as a well-bundled novel reader vacates the seat next to the two young-women. The punk rocker drops his green denim satchel on the crooked slate tiles of the patio, and engages the two, “Hey, I’m going to get a coffee, do either of you ladies want something?”
“No thanks,” they said in unison, about two octaves higher than the voices they had been using for their conversation. The co-customers take notice to their new tone by shifting their eyes onto the faces of the two young-women to gage their sincerity. Then all eyes shift back.
“Ok, then,” he said, “can you watch my bag?” without waiting for an answer, and as he makes his way towards the door of the café the temperature of the air shifts, it grows warmer as if a late-summer breeze from 7th avenue had wafted its way down this side street to warm up this autumn afternoon, bringing odors of food, leather shoes and truck exhaust.
The punk rocker freezes in his spot, turns his head 90 degrees to look up the street and says, “Oh man, this neighborhood is hysterical.”
We all follow his sightline up the hill, turning our heads, but not our bodies, towards 7th avenue. Sauntering down the street towards Café Regular was the locally homegrown actor John Turturro.
As John Turturro reaches the area just in front of the cafe, I aim my eyes to meet his eyes and provide a head nod. He obliges, and in that slow moment of locking eyes all time and space froze. I could see each strand of curly hair on his head, where the grey mixed with the black. I could see the pores on his face. I could see the low tint of his teeth in the thin space between his lips, the lint on his overcoat, the wrinkles of his hands. I entered that moment with all of my belief that he would become my best friend and then he spoke to us.
“Hi,” he snorts, not looking at anyone in particular, and lifts his right arm slightly to half-wave. His head slightly lowered on a tilt as if expecting someone might throw something at him.
Then, the punk rocker jumps up to engage John, either because he is drunk or because he is a punk rocker.
“I’m a film producer!” he exclaims, and the air shuts tight into a sudden quietness, the birds stop chirping, all the traffic stops. The punk rocker continues… “I am a film producer and John, can you help me get my film made?”
We all hold our breaths. The gasp is audible. The dozen or so of us outside, and the dozen of so of us inside are all waiting for John’s answer. It could go either way. Is this the moment of discovery we’ve all dreamed about, where the big time homegrown celebrity gives back some of his hard won glory to his community?
I close my eyes. Feeling the warmth of the sun on this autumn day. I channel my inner enthusiasm for this moment back into my soul, meditating on this specific bend in the universe. Sinatra’s voice echoes across the Yankee stadium in my mind, “If you can make it here…you can make it…” In my meditation I envision my co-customer’s faces. They all alight with joy, a reinforced belief in the human spirit.
My meditation continues, I envision what will happen next, believing that I can impact this moment by thinking deep positive thoughts…
“Yes!” shouts John Turturro, “Yes, I will help you. Join me inside for a café au lait!”
We, the customers outside of the cafe wouldn’t be able to believe it, but would half-expect it, because John is from Brooklyn and we live in Brooklyn and Brooklyn is currently the most magical place on Earth.
We would all jump-up with joy cheering for John Turturro, half spilling our coffees and plates of pastries. A montage of his life spreads across the wide screen. Here he is as a young man, here he is in his first movie, here he is running for Senate, here he is winning, here he is at the UN solving world peace, and then here he is, greyed and wise, sitting with us, telling us his most favorite and precious story about what it’s like to work with the Cohen brothers…what it’s really like, and we cant get enough of his story.
In my meditation I envision that my co-customers react to his generosity with their own requests.
“Can you help me too, I’m a writer.”
“Can you help me, I’m a musician.”
“I’m an actor…” The missives continue.
As John would reach the top of the short flight of steps of the cafe, breathing in the intoxicating aroma of coffee, steamed milk, and cinnamon. All of the customers who were sitting outside would now be on their feet in a gathering crowd, all in an effort to follow him in.
But then reality would set in for John, he is just a person, even if from Brooklyn.
He’d drop his head sullenly and then raise his head with fortitude and would say in a voice reminiscent of one of his characters, most like Barton Fink, but I’m not sure which one…
“Dear friends from my beloved Brooklyn neighborhood, the neighborhood that gave me life, I cannot assist so many of you. This drunk punk rocker approached me and I chose to invite him for a café au lait. I apologize drunk punk rocker, but I truly can’t assist, I got carried away, as I often do, as you can see in the characters I portray on film and on the stage are often getting carried away. Please accept my sincerest apology, and my heartfelt gratitude for your continued support of my work.”
Feeling my meditation has turned away from the positive outcome I was hoping for, I open my eyes and to my left John Turturro briskly enters Café Regular, without having responded to the drunk punk rocker’s question. John’s coattail whisks past my ear.
When I had closed my eyes to bask in the short serendipity of this Brooklyn mojo, I hoped that some of my co-customers, besides the drunk punk rocker, would raise their voices, or at least raise their eyes.
Not so. They went on with their semi-private afternoon plans of coffee, conversations and crossword puzzles as if John Turturro, the homegrown local talent, was just like everyone else. Just like us, the modest lot of us sipping our coffees outside on a fall afternoon. My meditation didn’t manifest into a public celebration. Disappointed I take a slow sip of my nearly finished, now cold double cappuccino.
I look for the drunk punk rocker. He’s slumped down into a worn rattan chair. He has his eyes and attention on the monotonist and her friend.
“I worked with Brad Pitt once,” he says to them and they turn their heads towards him, but not their bodies, “He was cool. He trusted me because I asked him, like, honest questions. He didn’t trust anyone else, like, just me.” His whiskey bottle was near empty. My double cappuccino was too.
I re-enter the café. John Turturro was now snug-fit onto a stool along the far wall, his back to the entering customers. His gangling limbs bent tightly to fit the cozy space of the narrow counter. He hunched over his tablet reading something that had a bright glow.
I order a double espresso, telling the barista I could use the same cup as before. I hand him my paper cup, soiled with a caved and sunken meniscus of milk foam and cinnamon along the bottom.
I turned to look back outside. The punk rocker bounds up the stairs, having built up his muster to approach John Turturro again. He stomps over to John and whispers in his ear. John shakes his slumped head, each of three times stating a strong but somewhat exhausted, “No.” Dejected the punk rocker returns to his seat outside. He glances at me as he walks out, “Hysterical man, this neighborhood is freaking hysterical.”
I retrieve my coffee in its dirty cup from the kind and confident barista and head back to my spot outside. I notice my co-customers are all again glancing sideways at Rebecca and Duncan and their lapdog Cardigan, now with a more intense focus than before. They are stretching their bodies to move their faces closer to the couple, as if they are preparing to pounce.
“What is a four letter word for all-night party?” Rebecca again asks Duncan, her head tilted towards him as if he’s the sunshine that makes all of the plants grow. Again Duncan raises his head to the sky and Cardigan hides his face.
The entire available community of co-customers, dog-walking passer-bys, families with strollers, kids on scooters, passengers in the cars waiting for the light to change, renters and owners of the apartments and brownstones that ring the café from down the block as well as across the street…all lean even further into this simple, humble, weekend conversation of a couple who might have planned this specific autumn afternoon of joyful serenity during a text message exchange as Friday faded from the week.
Rebecca asks the question again, “What’s a four letter word for…”
And before she can continue, the entire block, including the now very visibly angry punk rocker and the emotionally charged monotonist and her friend at the table to my left, even the locally home grown actor John Turtutto, erupt louder than midnight sirens, louder than the subway screeching to a halt…
“RAVE! The fucking word is RAVE!”
The dispatcher at the moving company (we’ve used this company twice before) recommended I grab either of the parking spots that bookend the hydrant across the street from our apartment. The tone of her voice made me sentimental for rotary phones.
The truck will fit if you can hold one of those spots. Watch your street. When a spot opens up, move your car there. It will be much easier for you.
Each of the past five days I would check a few times a day. Parting the antique shutters. They click and chatter when I open and close them. Then, the day before moving day the spot opens up. I’m outside, packing my car for the first trip to our new house. The buds drop from the tulip trees, light green snow. They get stuck in your hair. I run across the street and stand in the vacancy. Buds escape my feet.
What to do now? My car is packed, the roof rack is packed, ready for a trip. I can’t park it. I look around for trash cans. I ask my neighbor whose daughter is our main babysitter, she’s sitting on her steps, sunning herself while gazing deeply at her computer.
What do you think? I ask.
I’m not sure, she replies, shielding the sun from her face with her left hand.
I notice one of the old school locals, Eli, is painting the stoop steps a few doors down. He’s on his knees, halfway up the steps, running a paint roller from side to side.
Hey, can I ask you something? I ask in a respectful tone.
Eli has been quietly witnessing the situation and has already figured out the answer. Barely meeting my gaze he extends his arm. In his hand is a key ring with a million keys. One small copper key protrudes from his pinched thumb and pinkey.
Here’s my keys to my gate. Go get the cones. Nobody will move the cones.
Thanks man. I say. Trying to keep my cool.
Don’t mention it, he says.
I look up and across the street and more of our neighbors are outside. Each surmising what to do.
Eli’s letting me use his cones. I express to the small set of watchers, trying to mute my glee. Everyone nods.
Eli, how will I find you later? I ask.
What for? He asks, startled, not wanting any part of any part of anything he’s not part of.
To give you back the cones. I reply.
Nah. Just throw them over the gate. He chuckles, letting me know I’m the rookie, I’m not from here as much as he is from here. He’s right. I’m from here, but I brought the rents up. Making the rents go up is the new Brooklyn. Making a Brooklyn for everyone is the old Brooklyn.
I put the cones in place. My neighbors nod in acceptance and I drive the first batch of my stuff to New Jersey. Everyone waves.
I return to Brooklyn later that night with an empty car ready for a second load. I drive up to the hydrant, expecting to see the cones, and there’s a black Volvo there. Parked with it’s back wheel on the curb. Dents all over. Dirty.
I pull up in front. Exit my vehicle and review the black automobile. From across the street a neighbor recounts my experience loud enough for me to hear.
You get Eli’s cones. You place them to hold the space. When you’re out, someone moves them and takes the spot. You come back, no place to park. No place for the truck. Must be a jerk.
I raise my arms up. Yup, I say. I stare at the car. I find the cones wedged near the curb.
Did he leave a number on his car? My neighbor is now standing beside me, shaking his head. Can you tell whose it is?
I’m going to post this to the block list serve, he says. Let’s see if anyone knows whose car this is. He reads aloud as he types, one black Volvo, license plate…parked in front of…please move…ok, posted.
Thanks. I say. I’m going to go back to packing.
You’re welcome, he says, we’re sad to see you go.
The next morning. Which is today, the day I am writing this, the movers arrive early. They call my cell phone. I think it’s my alarm. I click it off. They call again. I click it off. They call again. I answer.
Jason, this is your driver. We’re here.
They double park the truck. This causes some caustic jeers from passing cars and delivery trucks. Slowly nearly all cars blocked in between the truck and the sidewalk depart. All except one.
If this dude moves this one car our lives become a whole lot easier, the moving team lead says. I nod in agreement.
Just then, across the street, Eli appears, looking at the black Volvo. He shakes his head. Then shrugs.
I run over and ask, do you know whose car this is?
Sure, says Eli.
It’s J, lives around the corner. Must have gotten home late. You know J, he’s got his hair to his shoulders?
J? Yes I know J. J is the guy who is always saying hi to Sheila. Smiling from across the street. Crossing the street to talk to her. When I encounter him on the sidewalk I swear he crosses the street, turns the corner, goes a different direction. We call him Iggy Pop as his face somewhat resembles his face. I can kinda see it.
Eli turns to look up the block, he raises his chin, squints. Gazing across his terrain.
Yup. He says. That’s J’s car.
He shrugs again and heads back down the block.
It takes all four movers to lift and carry our piano down the stoop. They struggle and bend and crouch and pull. It’s wrapped and strapped and contains a billion or more combinations of sounds, songs and soul.
We’re not piano movers one says out loud.
You are now, says another.
Here, on this map, is Texas.
All tan and lonely.
Veiled by blue lines of highways and stop signs.
And here I am, this giant looking down on all that space
and I feel the breath of its desert on my face.
I’m on the roadside, and the weeds,
and the cactus, and the men in blue pick-up trucks
pass with their eyes below their hat lines.
Pulling my smile against my teeth so not to let the dust in.
I’m waiting for this bus. You’re already on it.
When it stops, you look out from behind the big round wheel
open the door and ask if we’ve met before.
As I climb the stairs I drop a stack of photographs.
They are shuffled down the highway by the highway wind.
Black and white and glittering like fires.
You dropped your pictures, you say.
I know, I say.
Don’t you want to get them, you say.
No, I say, and you look at me standing on the stairs to the bus
and it seems you are deciding whether or not to let me in.
It’s on that road in Texas that I see you, in a forever way
Christmas and the snow, parents and home.
I want to hold you, but all I have is this old map
and your smell in my old shirt.
You wore this one before you left.
In her hands she held a baby bird
tiny, wet, squawking.
She has a virgin mary smile
and her head bent, her eyes bent longingly
at a virgin mary angle.
She seemed content
standing there on the corner
with all that traffic moving by her.
She didn’t notice.
She rocked back and forth, slightly
coddling her young
She hummed to herself.
She stood there rocking her bird.
It was October and I thought that
birds only had babies in the Spring.
It began to get cold
the sun slipped behind the tall buildings
but she didn’t notice.
She was the Lexington Avenue virgin of the bird
rooted to her corner like some strange city tree
making a nest in her hands.
She stood there, across the street from the hardware store
humming to herself, humming to her bird
Unaware of the people and the cars
and the buses
and the noise.