July 21, 2009
Some things disappear from site under the radar. You go by a street corner every week, every day even, and one day a big tree is gone, or a building. You sense something is missing, but you are only marginally aware of it—if at all.
There was this wino that haunted the neighborhood around my office; a little guy who I saw almost anytime I was on the street. I don’t think I ever saw him walking a straight line, even some mornings on my way in he was reeling, or walking out of the bodega with a bottle in a paper sack, headed for the park across the street, or that narrow space between the rear of the package store and the tracks.
One dark evening I almost tripped over him, lying asleep on a path, still astride a toppled bicycle. It was an easy rationalization to assume he was feeling no pain and not likely to freeze, and so to keep walking.
Even doing my best to avoid him, he would still approach, with that drunkard’s gait, like he was plodding through 6” of muck, elbows bent and spread wide, giddy eyed, struggling to connect some words to hit me up for money or a smoke, or maybe just to start a conversation. No matter, I’d grunt a syllable in reply, or turn away and pretend I did not hear, unable to breach the gap that seemed so vast.
And now it dawns on me he has vanished—how many months since I’ve seen him, this guy I couldn’t imagine surviving the winter at least three years ago.
For that matter, how about the old gimp, squinting through his Lions Club glasses, always with a different coolguy hat, using a putter for a cane. You’d see him, too, all the time, hobbling under the railroad tracks, or huddled in the café on a bittercold day, nursing a coffee and reading a three day old Post. Even when he’d push a broom down the sidewalk in front of the rib joint or the nail salon, there was a quiet dignity about him—where has he gone, since how many months ago I saw him last?
Why bring this up? Why can’t I sing a few bars of There But For Fortune, and move on?
This world is a world of layers, of overlays of people, cultures, societies, occupying the same space and time.
The guys in the park—a miserable salient wedged between two converging throughways, windscoured in winter, sunblasted in summer—the guys with their beverages in paper sacks; the scowling woman in rapt conversation with no one else, her bundles wrapped in plastic bags, stuffed in a little shopping cart, her finger on some passage of her bible. The vacant faced guys, sitting on the stoop outside my office, next to the alley of the glistening condom, the alley of the black escalade, tinted window vvvvipping down, the broken glassed, urine scented alley of the stealthy hand to hand exchange.
It’s slow today, I’m working alone. (Hell, it’s been slow for months.) Gotta get out and stretch my legs. Some guy approaches the stoop from the sidewalk as I reach it from the stair hall.
The guy stops in his tracks, but does not turn away.
“I jes wanna sit somewhere and eat my lunch,” he declares. “They gimme a hard time in the park.” He displays some napkins and a couple of fried egg rolls in paper tubs.
“What’s your name,” I reply.
“Darryl. I work at the club.”
“My name is Alan.”
“I’ll pickup my trash when I’m done. You see that bag in the alley? I’ll pick it up, too.”
I put a hand on his boney shoulder. I detect a faint trace of alcohol. “Make yourself at home, Darryl. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
“I can do these weeds for you, too, if you want,” gesturing to the unpaved strip along the building.
“No thanks, it’s better than bare gravel.”
“Yeah, they gonna piss there anyway, weeds or no weeds. Me, I piss inside, not outside.”
“yeah, they’re gonna piss there either way.”
When I returned Darryl is gone. The stoop is clean. The bag in the alley is gone, too.
My alley, my street, my city, my dieselbreath city. City of my birth, the city I fled so many times, the city I cannot leave. My alley, my city, my wino who I could not face—how can I not love you?