October 14, 2007

Visions of Things to Come


Over the past year, I’ve done my share of wandering about the neighborhood. I try to keep it to a minimum, as the Assholes With Strollers problem continues to expand at an unprecedented rate. Still, every day there’s something that forces me outside. (Usually a Vice Run of some kind.)

      As I’ve been wandering about these past months, trying to swallow the choking hatred that clogs my throat every time I try to buy some damn groceries, I’ve been encountering one unfailingly friendly face. Instead of finding this some sort of comfort, however, I just find it confusing and, beyond that, a little unnerving.

      First time I remember seeing him was near the beginning of summer. He was sitting on the steps around the corner from the grocery store with a bunch of bottle men, sorting and counting that day’s haul. He didn’t seem to have any bottles of his own—he was just relaxing and chatting with a few of them. But as I passed with my bag of groceries, his face brightened and he waved.

      “Heya buddy!” he said. “How’s it goin’?”

      “Oh, fine, fine,” I replied, expecting him to hit me up for change or a smoke. But he didn’t ask and I didn’t offer, and I continued on my way thinking nothing of it beyond the fact that I was surprised he didn’t want to bum something.

      He seemed to be energetic and fit, but his face was hard and tired—the face of a man in his mid-sixties who’d had a mighty rough go of it. Then again, it might’ve just been the booze doing its job. He sounded a little drunk. Why else be so friendly to a complete stranger? I figured he probably said the same thing to everyone who passed.

      Then a week or two later I saw him again walking down the sidewalk. The sidewalks were crowded that afternoon, and, like everyone else, he ignored all the people he passed. But as he approached me his hand went up in a wave. “Hey, how’s it goin’ buddy?” he said with a smile.

      “Oh, I guess I’m doing all right,” I said as we passed each other. This time I thought it was kind of funny and odd.

      A month after that, I was on my way to the bookstore for some ungodly reason, when I passed him again. This time he was standing just off the sidewalk between two parked cars, having a very animated discussion with two men. He was regaling them with a tale of debauchery, and all three men were laughing. As I passed, he was clearly fast approaching the punchline, his scarred voice rising in pitch. He stopped in the middle of a sentence, turned to me and waved again.

      “Hey! Buddy! How are ya?”

      This time I waved back. “Just fine—how ‘bout yourself?”

      I kept walking, and he continued with his story.

      He, like me I suppose, looked like he didn’t quite belong in this neighborhood anymore. He was an old and haggard rummy in a black t-shirt and dirty jeans. Most every time I’d see him he had a bandanna knotted around his head. Maybe he was an old biker, I have no idea. And I have no idea why he had picked me out.

      This sort of thing happens to me a little too frequently. Normally when it does, I assume that I’m in yet another version of The Hitchhiker, and that eventually the person who keeps showing up in my path will inform me that I’ve been dead for a week.

      With this guy, for some reason, I didn’t worry about it too much. Maybe I just didn’t care anymore.

      A few mornings back I was in the big C-Town over on Ninth Street picking up some bread and beer. If at all possible, I only go into that store early on weekdays. Any other time, it’s a madhouse that pushes me to the brink of panic and violence. It was quiet that morning though, and I found a checkout line with only one guy in it.

      First thing I noticed as I was putting my beer and bread on the conveyor belt was that the guy in front of me was buying an awful lot of bacon. Pounds of it. He was also chatting up the checkout girl.

      “Would you pack it right this time?” he was saying. “You can do better than that.”

      His voice was rough, but in that store at that time of day, it was par for the course.

      “You don’t like it, you can pack it all up yourself,” she told him. It sounded like they were joking around—or that they’d had this same conversation so many times in the past that it had lost it’s edge.

      “Oh—” he said, pointing at one of his many, many packages of bacon,, “And that one there—that gets rung up separate.”

      I was looking idly about, listening with half an ear, more concerned with the large display of something called “Stretch Island Fruit Leather,” thinking that I seemed to have chosen the wrong line again. It sounded like this was gonna take awhile.

      Then I heard the old man say “Hey, buddy! How ya doin’?”

      I squinted at his face for the first time, and the cantankerous old man in front of me transformed into my odd biker rummy friend.

      “Oh,” I said, a little startled and honestly surprised, “hello.”

      “Yeah, I see you around,” he said. “Me, I been livin’ in this neighborhood for fifty years!”

      “Really,” I said. “That beats me—I’ve only been here about eighteen or so.

      “Hey, that’s still awhile, you’re workin’ on it. I live around the corner from you.” he said. Then, quite loudly, he added, “And you live at . . . “

      He pretty much yelled my address to everyone in the grocery store.

      Not that any one of them would care, of course. That’s not the thing. It’s just that you shouldn’t go around shouting people’s addresses in grocery stores.

      Then it struck me that this man knew my address.

      “I . . . um,” I said.

      He returned to bickering with the checkout girl.

      “But you only have 113 points,” she was saying.

      “113? I got a lot more than that.”

      “No, just 113 points.”

      “Well, then somebody took some off. I don’t know where or how or who, but somebody took them off.”

      He slid a credit card through the reader.

      “You need to punch your PIN number in,” the girl said.

      “Oh yeah, yeah,” he muttered. “Lets see . . . my PIN number . . . Oh yeah. Eight . . . three . . . two . . . four.” Then he repeated it.

      If this guy was out there announcing his personal identification number in grocery stores, maybe I wasn’t the one with something to worry about.

      Still, though, why did he know where I live? I mean, I know it’s a small damn neighborhood, but still, it’s a little creepy.

      Without another word to me, the man gathered up his two armloads of bacon and left. I stepped down the line and pulled out my wallet as the girl rang up my beer and bread.

      “He knows where I live,” I sighed, as I handed her a bill.

      Well, I thought after grabbing my groceries and heading back home, better a rummy ex-biker than one of these stroller thugs. Even if he was Death.


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