SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 19, 2008

Should’ve Seen It Coming

 

I should’ve seen it coming. In fact, I did see it coming. I knew it was inevitable. Yet somehow it caught me off guard. It always happens so quickly.

            See, a few years ago Morgan gave a few bucks to an old junkie who would stand outside the bagel shop, trembling and asking for spare change. He was a gaunt man in his fifties or sixties with graying hair and a graying mustache. He’d seen better days. (At least I hoped he had). A few bucks weren’t going to help him turn his life around, but at least it left him a few bucks closer to that night’s hit. Let him grab what little comfort he could in the days he has left, I figured.

            Then one day he disappeared from the sidewalk outside the bagel place, and I assumed the worst. But I’d forgotten the golden rule of heroin addiction: if you make it to fifty, you live forever (most of ‘em don’t, obviously).

            And sure enough, earlier this summer he reappeared some seven or eight blocks down the street from the bagel shop, seated on a milk crate in front of a grocery store. He seemed to be in better shape than he had been—he was more bloated than gaunt, the constant tremors had subsided, and he was now capable of normal human speech.

            Of course most of what he said amounted to things like, “Can you spare a little something?” and “Hey! You! Don’t you ignore me!”—but it was still an improvement.

            I don’t go to that grocery store too often—once a week at most. That place always gives me trouble. The aisles are too narrow, the stroller population is insane, and they have these automated check-outs where the talking machines just jabber and stutter and nobody knows how to use the damn things. Nevertheless, sometimes I have no choice. And for the last few months the old bum has been waiting outside every single time.

            First time I saw him, I dropped a little something in his cup. Then I did the same thing the second and third time I saw him. He never verbally abused me, and always said thank you. One time he was blocking the doorway, haranguing people as they tried to walk in. He let me be, though, and I told him I’d catch him on the way out (which I did). Again he said thank you, and that was that.

            The last time I saw him he was screaming at people who just walked past (“Don’t you fuckin’ just walk past me!”). But when he saw me approaching he smiled, held out his cup, and gave it a little jiggle. He knew what the score was by now, and I was getting the feeling I was becoming ensnared. There was no way I could simply walk past him anymore.

            He was out there on his crate again this morning. I thought little of it, thinking I’d just drop a little something in his cup as I was leaving and then be on my way.

            But when I stepped out of the store, he jumped from his crate.

            “Hey, buddy!” he said, approaching with a wave and a smile and his cup. “Where ya been? I ain’t seen ya ‘round in awhile.”

            Ahh, crap, that’s it, I thought. Once they want to chat, it’s all over.

            “Oh, I’ve . . . been around,” I said, gesturing vaguely, not wanting to point out that I’d just seen him two days earlier.

            “I been away myself—in the hospital,” he said.

            “Really. I’m sorry to hear that.”

            “Yeah, they say I had walkin’ pneumonia . . . I didn’t even know I had it.”

            “Really,” I replied, trying to quietly edge myself out of coughing range. “Well . . . I hope you’re feeling better.”

            “Ah, I’m gettin’ there, feelin’ a little better.”

            Then he made a move as if he was going to start walking with me, and I felt my back tighten.

            It had happened far too often over the years. Ever since I was in high school, in fact. Some bum, or addict, or criminal, or crazy nut will latch onto me for some reason, and the next thing you know I’m trying to get them a job, or medical help, or a room, or I’m filling out parole forms. And those are the easy cases—christ, I’ve ended up teaching German to inmates and trying to get a guy on death row signed to a record label.

            I didn’t know where things would be heading with this guy, but I just didn’t want to find out. It wouldn’t be anyplace good. The only certainty is that it wouldn’t be long before he started asking for more money than I was dropping in his cup. They always do. Always.

            I wished him the best of luck, handed him a few bucks, and was on my way. He didn’t follow.

            On a related note, you know what really churns my chowder? These clean, comfortable kids with neatly pressed clothes and nice haircuts, most (but not all) of them male, most in their twenties and thirties who were weaned on the writings of Charles Bukowski and the Beats and little else, who like to think that they’re somehow in touch with the underbelly of humanity. More often than I care to remember, I’ve heard people fitting the above description refer to the bums, addicts and criminals as “their people.”

            “These are my people,” they’ll say.

            Hey, you know what? I got a little news flash for you, Rochester—no they’re not. They’re not yours, they’re not mine, they’re not anybody’s—and that’s the problem.

            Oh, they might toy with you for awhile for their own amusement when you decide to stop by a dive bar to pretend you’re in touch with the dark side of life, but they can smell the stench of a patronizing asshole a mile away. If you were really in touch with the bums and addicts and criminals, you’d know that there was nothing romantic about them. Hell, they aren’t even all that interesting once you sit down with them. They’re just desperate fuck-ups like all of us, only more so—and they’ll take you for what they can because that’s what they do.

            Keep that in mind, Rochester, when you return to your Williamsburg loft to write that gritty short story for your college literary journal.

            Asshole.

            I’m not real sure what got me started on that. I guess my own reaction to the bum got me thinking about how other people might respond. I’d been tossing him a few bucks because he looked like he needed it. And sure, I still hang onto a few Romantic notions myself, thinking of him as a “character,” thinking there must be a strength and a wisdom in there that allowed him to survive for all these years. When you get down to it, that strength and wisdom is nothing more than cheap luck, like anybody else’s. The second he wanted to talk—in a completely normal, human manner, I might add—I recoiled the same way I recoil from damn near any stranger who suddenly starts talking too much. I just didn’t want to know how he planned to get more money out of me.

            It’s a terrible, perhaps even hypocritical attitude, I know. But that’s it—I just don’t want to know.

            Three days later I stepped outside to go to the drug store. I hadn’t gone five yards when I heard the voice behind me: “Hey, buddy! How’s it goin’?”

            I turned. It was the bum all right, wearing a nice new shirt and walking with a couple of friends.

            “Hey,” he said, “you seen the mailman go by here yet?”

 

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