March 9, 2008

The Saints Are Getting Older


If given the choice these days, I try to avoid Manhattan. Awful place, for the most part, full of self-absorbed douchebags with (as the saying goes) big mouths and no guts. People more concerned with their clothes and hairdos and reprogramming their Blackberries than with the person they just slammed into -- or what has happened to a once great city. Even more troublesome, a recent visit revealed that the stroller epidemic which has devastated certain sections of Brooklyn in recent years has tiddlywinked across the East River, infecting Manhattan south of 14th Street.

            Be that as it may, I had to go into Manhattan last week to meet with the editor who (poor thing) will be working on my next book. We’d never met before, so the plan was kept as low-key as possible—we were just going to meet for lunch in the East Village. As luck would have it, she’d suggested a place I’d been to on a few previous occasions. That cut down on my logistics considerably. (If I’m meeting someone at a place I’ve never been, I usually try to make a practice run beforehand, just to confirm the location and figure out the layout. That wasn’t necessary this time—I knew where the place was, and I knew how to find my way to the bar, which is where I’d wait. Get there early and have a beer or two to steady the inevitable nerves that accompany meeting someone.

            It was all going to be very simple.

            We were meeting at one, so I left my place a little after twelve to give myself plenty of time. The train arrived just as I got down to the platform, so everything was looking good.

            When I reached the Broadway-Lafayette stop, I let the cane flop open and began tapping my way to the restaurant. It was only a couple of blocks from the subway, so I’d be there in plenty of time.

            I tapped over to Lafayette, then took a left up to Bleecker, where I made a right.

            It took me a few minutes before that grating voice in my head began whining that something wasn’t quite right.

            The restaurant, see, wasn’t where I remembered. Not in any obvious way, anyway. It had been about a year and a half since I’d been there, and that had been in the summertime, and a sidewalk cafe had been set up outside.

            That’s all it is, I thought. No sidewalk cafe. Instead, I’d have to look for a sign or awning or something to mark the entrance.

            But as I walked up and down Bleecker, something far beyond a missing sidewalk cafe was wrong. There simply weren’t any restaurants there.

            Had it closed down? Moved? She’d been the one who suggested it. I began to get nervous. That head start I was counting on was slipping away. I couldn’t believe this—I was in one of the last Manhattan neighborhoods I still knew pretty well, going to a place I’d been on several occasions, and I was lost. I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. Of course it’s happened hundreds of times, which may explain why I couldn’t remember the last time. Still, though.

            “You need help, son?”

            An old black guy, shorter than me and tending toward the chubby, was standing on the corner of Bleecker and Elizabeth. “I been watchin’ you go up an’ down the street—wha’chu lookin’ for?”

            I told him I was looking for a restaurant.

            “Oh, no, no, no—there ain’t no restaurants here. Where’s it supposed to be?”

            I told him.

            “Well, there ain’t nothin’ here—and I know everything in this neighborhood. ‘Been workin’ here for fifty years now. I know all these places. See, this street here, this is Elizabeth, then that next one up there, that’s Mott, then after that, that’s Lafayette.”

            I was going to tell him that I knew all that, but he asked, “What kinda restaurant is it? A nice one?”

            Pretty nice, yeah, I told him. Nice for me, anyway.

            “Well, it ain’t here then. There ain’t never been a restaurant here. See, this building here, this used to be a dancin’ school, an’ that one over there, across the street, that was . . . ”

            I was becoming painfully aware of the time. I hate being late. And I wasn’t getting there any sooner, standing here on the corner, yapping with this guy.

            I was about to excuse myself, when he said, “I’ll walk you down here—I’m just waitin’ on a guy. I’ll get you across the street.”

            I thanked him (even though it really wasn’t necessary) and we began walking the two short blocks to Lafayette.

            Along the way, he told me what every building used to be thirty or forty years ago.

            “ . . . And that hardware store, before it was a hardware store, that used to be Hymie’s Whiskey Store. I spent a lotta time in there . . . ”

            It was of no help to me at the moment, but it was interesting.

            When we arrived at the corner of Lafayette, I had reached the conclusion that I was in fact a block or two south of where I needed to be. The place I was looking for wasn’t on Bleecker at all. But when I told him this, he refused to accept the possibility.

            “Naw, that ain’t right. There ain’t nothin’ up there. But there are a couple places on the other side of Lafayette—it’s prob’ly one o’ them. There’s a place up on Jones, I think, but I dunno.”

            I didn’t want to argue with him, given that he was being friendly and, in his own way, helpful.

            “And that building there, that was where they had a bunch of juvenile troublemakers . . . Now it’s got offices in it.”

            “Uh-huh. You know, I think I really will try heading north here . . . I think that’s where I need to be.”

            “Well I’ll still getcha ‘cross the street . . . Make things easier that way, if you really wanna do that.”

            “But—” It was too late—we were already on our way across Lafayette.

            Once on the opposite corner, he told me his name, and that his wife was legally blind, so he was used to leading her around. We shook hands, and I thanked him again. Then I headed north, and he went back to wait for someone.

            A block north on Bond, I crossed Lafayette again, and once again learned after a few long minutes that the old man had been right. There was nothing there. Certainly nothing I was looking for.

            The slow panic was beginning to percolate. This was a fairly important meeting (at least so much as I ever have such things), and I’d gotten lost and was about to blow it off. I was thinking I could call the restaurant and ask them where the hell they were, but to do that I’d need to find a working pay phone, which in itself would be no easy task.

            I turned around and headed back to Lafayette. Then, for some reason, I decided to try Bleecker again, thinking—quite foolishly—that maybe I’d just missed it somehow. I knew I’d probably run into the old man again, but it was just something I’d have to deal with.

            Halfway down the block, my mind racing, I noticed someone angling across the sidewalk toward me, and I began taking evasive action. Before I could get around them, the person aiming for me spoke.

            “Are you Jim?”

            It took me a second to realize that it was actually the woman I was on my way to meet. Thank god, sometimes, for the stupid cane and hat.

            “You’re headed the wrong way,” she said. Then she turned me around, and walked me up to Great Jones and into the restaurant—which, in retrospect, was right where the old man had said it was. Sort of.


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