SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
November 2, 2008

A Bunch of Goddamn Whales

 

For the most part, there is no reason anyone would ever call the street outside my apartment “crazy.” For the most part, it’s perfectly, painfully sane and genteel (to most people anyway). The neighbors ambling down the street speak in hushed tones about jobs and projects and schools and buying things. They push their children in strollers and walk their well-behaved dogs on leashes. So when someone starts screaming, I tend to notice.

            Fortunately, once every couple of years, something settles on the corner—some kind of cosmic gas or space-time bubble or psychic warp, and suddenly lots of people start getting all nuts, howling obscenities and nonsense.

            This was one of those glorious days when there was something intangible and dangerous in the air that was making people a little crazy. You never knew who was going to say what next, or why.

            I didn’t even have to go outside to sense it—it wafted gently through my window. By nine in the morning, I knew Crazy Street had returned.

            Many, many years ago, I used to call the intersection out here the Bad News Corner. Not only were there daily car accidents (some of them mighty), but there were three pay phones, through which people received nothing but bad news. In those days before cell phones, I could count on being entertained regularly by listening in on the one-sided conversations of people losing their jobs or homes, hearing news of death or illness, or just having a good old-fashioned boy-girl squabble. Sometimes you had to guess what the trouble was by trying to filter the words through the screams and wailings.

            Yeah, those were funny days. Since then they’ve put up stoplights, reducing the number of car accidents dramatically, and they’ve removed two of the Bad News phones, leaving only one across the street. Nobody uses it much anymore, and I know enough to stay away from it myself. But every once in awhile—like this morning—a stranger finds him or herself in the neighborhood and in need of a phone. That’s when the fun begins.

            As usual, it took a few minutes before I decoded the noise coming through the window as a possible source of entertainment.

            “Yeah?” a man shouted, “well what the fuck am I supposed to do now? You tell me that! What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

            At first I figured it was just another asshole on a cell phone trying to prove how important and powerful he was. But I listened, and the voice wasn’t moving. The shouts remained steady. Whoever it was wasn’t even pacing in circles, like most of the assholes.

            I pushed myself back from the computer, walked to the window, and sat down. I lit a smoke a took a look across the street. Sure enough—some poor schlub had picked up the Bad News phone, and now he was in it but good. It’s so hard to prove how important and powerful you are to other people when you’re on a pay phone—you just look like a loser. Even people on the other end can tell.

            “NoJeanyou tell me—”

            At first I thought it was another lover’s quarrel, but the more I listened, the more it sounded like a guy who was about to be fired.

            “Jean! You listen to me—Are you listening? . . . I ain’t goin’ to Jersey again, okay? Got that? . . . I don’t know what happened to the papers . . . No—I had ‘em all filled out, and then they were gone . . . I don’t know what happened to ‘em, okay! I had ‘em—No! Listen! Jean, listen—I had ‘em, then they were gone. Somebody stole ‘em, okay? . . . No! Jean! Listen—you tell me what the fuck I’m supposed to do now! . . . What the fuck am I supposed to do now, Jean? What the fuck am I supposed to do now? You tell me . . . No . . . They were lost, are you listening? That’s what I’m telling you . . . I don’t know—they were just lost, okay? They’re gone . . . Jean, listen to me—No, I ain’t goin’ to Allentown neither . . . I don’t know what happened to the papers! They’re gone, okay? So what am I . . . Listen to me!—”

            Well, it went on like that for a good forty-five minutes, and I couldn’t help but think that this guy must’ve had a big pocketful of quarters. Good thing, too. He had a lot to say.

            Actually, he only used about three phrases, but he used them over and over again in different combinations. But still Jean wouldn’t listen to him.

            After awhile I got bored and went back to work. He was still yelling, so I never found out if Jean ever told him what to do, or if he was headed back to Jersey after hanging up, or if the mystery of the paperwork was ever resolved.

            No matter, I guess.

            An hour later I was back at the computer pretending to be hard at work on something important, when I heard another voice floating through my window.

            I couldn’t hear what he was saying clearly, but the tones were obviously wacky. Once again I walked over to the window.

            The hefty, bearded guy coming down the sidewalk didn’t have a cell phone, either—he was just sharing with the world.

            “ . . . And all the fat goddamn BOSSES, man! Movin’ into their goddamn houses! In goddamn Beverly Hills! Like a bunch of goddamn WHALES!”

            Still yelling, he turned the corner and I lost him, but not fifteen seconds after his voice faded away, a woman came down the sidewalk in the opposite direction, singing her crazy little heart out.

            Well, she wasn’t “singing,” exactly—I think more accurately she was giving voice to the alien tune that was beaming into her head—and it went something like this:

            “La la la la la la LA LA la la la la la LA LA la la la la la la la la LA LA la la la . . . ”

            That was it. All the nudging I needed. I went into the kitchen and put on my shoes. I wanted to get a little taste of what these people were on. I ran down stairs, out to the sidewalk, and took a big whiff, filling my lungs with the invisible crazy fog . . . but nothing happened. I was too late. The neighborhood around me was silent once again. Either the fog had lifted in the time it had taken me to get downstairs, or—more likely, I’m guessing—I was immune.

            Dejected, I headed back upstairs to work.

 

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