SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 28, 2009

Freddie from Brooklyn

 

“Heya, buddy!”

            The voice always comes from behind me, because it apparently takes a few seconds for my face or general demeanor to register after he passes me on the sidewalk.

            Once I hear the unmistakable and gruff “Heya, buddy,” though, I always stop and turn. I’ve perhaps made it too clear that I’m not particularly fond of my neighbors. I walk the streets with my head down in a half-hearted effort to shadow the loathing. Got no time or patience for the righteous bastards clogging the sidewalk. But I’m always happy to talk to Freddie.

            He’s a slight, grizzled man with a pinched face, a three-day growth of beard, and a harsh croak of voice marked by a classic Brooklyn accent. He always wears a clean button down shirt and battered, dirty slacks. He tells me he’s in his mid-sixties, but for the life of me he looks a good ten years older.

            Most people—including me—would probably call him a bum. Weather permitting, after all, he can usually be found parked in front of one store or another spare-changing it with a half-crushed coffee cup. I can’t say why he latched onto me—I’m not the talkative type—but it’s probably because I took the time to slip him a few bucks every time I saw him. And I never looked down my nose when I did it. More recently, though, we’ve run into each other as we were both just wandering around. It seems every time I see him, he’s just been released from the hospital for one ailment or another.

            “Heya, buddy!”

            “Heya, Freddie—how goes it?”

            “How you doin’?”

            “Hangin’ in there, gotta say.”

            “Hangin’ in there?”

            “Yup.”

            “I ain’t seen ya around in awhile . . . every time I don’t see ya for a few days I start to worry about what happened to ya, not that I’m thinkin’ about ya all the time or anything, but I just worry . . . I see ya got your lucky hat on.”

            “Need it every time I step outside around here. How goes it with you? How’s the neck?” (Last time I’d seen him, he’d just been released from the hospital again, where he was treated for a pinched nerve.)

            “Ahh, that’s all better now. Hunnert percent. But now I got this pain in my side.” He clutched his side for emphasis. “Hey buddy, lemme ask ya.”

            “Sure.”

            “What side’s your appendix on?”

            “Pretty sure it’s on the left side, isn’t it?”

            “The left? You sure?”

            “Pretty sure, yeah.”

            He held out his hands, considered them for a moment. After deciding which was the left one, he brought it back to clutch at his left side.

            “Okay, good. ‘Cause this pain I got, it’s on my right side.” He clutched his right side. “That makes me feel better. Thanks—you just helped me out. I was afraid it might be my appendix.”

            “No problem.”

            “But whaddya think it could be then?”

            “I’m . . . not really sure.”

            “Think it might be gas? ‘Cause every time I press on it, gas comes out.” He poked at his right side, but I didn’t hear anything.

            “Well, then, that might be it.”

            “All right, good. Thanks. ‘Cause I don’t wanna bring it to those fuckers up there.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

            “Where, Methodist? They give you trouble?”

            “If I had a bomb, I’d blow that fuckin’ place sky high. I mean it, too. Gimme a bomb and I’d blow ‘em up. In a minute. Be glad I did it, too.”

            I glanced around at all the Good Citizens walking past us. It struck me that the last thing Freddie needed was stupid trouble because some asshole heard the wrong thing.

            “Freddie, you might wanna—”

            “Prob’ly spend the rest of my life in prison for it, but it’d be worth it so long as I got to blow that place up with a bomb!

            “Freddie, shhh . . . So what happened?”

            “Ah,” he spat. “I went up there last time in the ambulance, right? And once they took me inside they triaged me. Then they made me sit in a fuckin’ wheelchair. Then they rolled me outside an’ left me there for twelve hours. No one ever did anything. Sat there in a fuckin’ wheelchair for twelve hours, all these people walkin’ past, starin’ at me ‘cause I’m sittin’ there. That ain’t right.”

            “That’s awful—I know a few people that sort of thing’s happened to.”

            “Then I went to Lutheran and they treated me nice. Left a few days later completely healed.”

            “Well there you go.”

            “Fuckers up there, though, they say I’m just playin’ with ‘em. Walked in there one day and the nurse was standin’ there with a cuppa coffee, an’ when she saw me she just dropped it an’ said ‘Freddie, I thought you were dead!’“

            “Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe they won’t treat you because they have you in their files as being dead.”

            “Hey, you retired? I always see you walkin’ around in the daytime.”

            “I guess you could say I’m pretty much retired, yeah.”

            “Wha’d you do? For a living, I mean?”

            I hate telling people I’m a “writer.” It makes me sound like one of the useless poufy snots who infest that neighborhood. I don’t exactly lie—I just sidestep the truth a little.

            “I wrote for newspapers for about twenty years.”

            “A newspaperman? Really? Which ones were you with?”

            “Oh, a couple different papers. Did a few things for the Post, a few others.”

            “Hey, were you with the Brooklyn Star?

            “The Star? No, umm . . . ”

            “Naah, ‘course not. You woulda had to’ve been a baby when that was around. What about the Eagle?”

            “Well, the Eagle I know about—” But I knew about it mostly thanks to Brooklyn historian Brian Berger, who’d sent me a number of old stories from the Eagle in recent months—but those were from the early 1900s. That version of the paper went under in 1955. Brian tells me there’s still one around, but I’ve never seen it.

            “They always covered the Dodgers—hey, what was that sportswriter’s name? Gary something?”

            “I—”

            “Nah, not Gary. Len, I think it was. Or Lionel, maybe? Ahh, I dunno. Man, this pain in my side. I’m hopin’ it’s just gas. What did I eat last night? Had some macaroni, but didn’t eat all of it. Had a little shrimp, too—you think that could be it?”

            “Could be.”

            “Yeah, my brother, he blows up like a balloon whenever he eats shrimp. Maybe that’s it. I’m just glad it ain’t my appendix—you helped me out with that. I’m glad I ran into ya.”

            “No problem at all, Freddie—but y’know, I should probably get on my way.”

            “Yeah? Where ya goin’?”

            I jerked a thumb over my own shoulder. “Need to go to the drugstore, pick up a couple prescriptions.”

            “Yeah, I guess we’re fallin’ apart.”

            “Ain’t it the truth.”

            We shook hands. “Well, catch ya later, Brooklyn Eagle Man! And thanks again for the help with that appendix thing!.”

            I waved back and headed on my way, realizing only then that for however many times we’d spoken, he’d never once asked my name.

 

You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.