December 6, 2009

All the Animals Come Out at Eight on Saturday Morning


When I venture outside it's usually with one simple and pure goal in mind—to avoid as many people as possible. It took me a good long time to work out the human rhythms of various neighborhoods around the city—when the sidewalks will be clear, when this or that bar will be empty, when the laundromat will be quiet, when there will be seats free on the train—and for the most part I think I have it down. Every once in awhile I’m surprised and disappointed, but those are rare instances. For all our adamant irrationality, humans remain easily predictable creatures. For instance, early Saturday mornings are always good. The Friday night types generally don’t begin to emerge until at least nine or ten.

            The crazies are a different story. The crazies you can never count on to do what’s expected. Their schedules are beamed in from some other dimension.

            It was shortly after eight on a Saturday morning when I stopped into the grocery store. The sidewalks were gray and damp and empty. Even the dog walkers were still asleep. Freddie, my favorite old panhandler, was waiting in the rain outside the store for his cigarette and handout, but that was fine—I expected him. The store itself was mostly clear. That was expected, too, so I was able to traipse up and down the aisles unmolested. Once I was at the checkout, though, all bets were off.

            I was standing in line with my bread and beer and sandwich meat. There was one woman in front of me.

            As I stood there, another woman crept up from behind, silently reached around and began placing her bottles of soda and tubs of margarine on the belt in front of me. This struck me as odd. I took a small step closer to the woman in front of me in a feeble attempt to assert my position as “Next in Line.” It didn’t seem to bother—or even register with—the woman who was still unloading her cart and loading the belt, filling it right up to the scanner. I turned and stared at her as she worked, but said nothing.

            At last she noticed me. At least I think she did. Her eyes revealed that drifting emptiness that told me she was either on too many meds, or not enough.

            “Oh,” she said. “I guess you can go ahead. I’m just waiting for my co-worker. She should’ve been here by now . . . I don’t know where she’s gone to.”

            “I see,” I told her as I started handing my few meager groceries to the clerk, one by one, to be scanned. But when I tried to take another step forward to give myself more room, I discovered that the woman in front of me hadn’t moved. In fact she was staring intently at my groceries.

            “Mm-mmmm,” she said shaking her bandannaed head. “That looks gooood. How much that cost?” She seemed to be referring to a package of sandwich meat.

I honestly have no idea how much anything costs. All I know is that the total every week is always about the same. I looked to the clerk for help on this one; she looked at her screen. Meanwhile the woman in the bandanna was leaning her face in closer to the processed meat and the woman behind me was moving in closer to me. At first I suspected a pickpocket scam might be in the works—I’d seen it done before. But then I realized I was just book-ended between two crazy ladies.

            “Three fifty-nine,” the clerk said.

            “Yeah?” said the woman who seemed to be sniffing the meat. “That’s gooood . . . Think I gotta get me somma that . . . where you keep it?”

            Trying to be helpful, I pointed toward the back of the grocery store, careful not to poke the woman behind me in the eye.

            “All the way back there?” she said, sounding disappointed. ‘I don’t wanna go all the way back there right now . . . I guess maybe I’ll get it next time.” Then she straightened up and started to walk away, leaving two bags of her own groceries behind.

            “Don’t forget your groceries.” the clerk yelled after her.

            “Yeah,” the woman said, pausing. She stepped back, snatched up one of her bags, and left, leaving the other behind.

            “I’m just waiting here for my co-worker,” the woman behind me said. “I don’t know where she’s gone off to.” That’s when I began to wonder if maybe the co-worker in question had just left the store with only half of her groceries.

            No matter. They’d work it out. I gave the clerk a bill, got my change, and stepped outside for the usual exchange with Freddie. It’s always the same.

            “Hey! Jimmy! Where you been? You okay?”

            “I’m fine. You?” I asked, slipping a bill into his open palm.

            “Oh, yeah, I’m fine. But I was worried about you . . . you okay?”

            “I’m fine, yeah.”

 “I was just thinking about you. Really I was. I was standin’ here thinkin’ ‘I ain’t seen Jimmy in about a week—I sure hope he’s okay. You doin’ okay?”

            “I’m fine, Freddie. Really.”

            “Really? Good. ‘Cause I get worried, y’know.”

            “And you’re okay?”

            “Oh, yeah . . . ”

This goes on for a while, only ending when Freddie asks me for a cigarette. Once he does, I’m free to move along.

            A few blocks later I stopped in a bodega, where a young man in shorts was pacing furiously, and for no apparent reason, in front of the counter. This was a particularly small and cramped bodega, so getting around him in order to get a couple of packs of smokes was a tricky business requiring the reflexes of a cat. I am not blessed with the reflexes of a cat, but I still got my smokes and left before the shooting started.

            I turned the corner onto one of the side streets, and several yards in front of me another moron in shorts appeared to be stretching before heading out for his stupid morning jog. I’m always tempted to kick those people in the Achilles tendon as I pass. But the more I watched, the more it became clear this man wasn’t simply stretching.

            Instead, he seemed to be performing some sort of half-assed tai chi routine (which I find even more deplorable). He slowly kicked his right leg out behind him, and slowly swung it around. Then he punched the air in slow motion. Then he kicked and swung his leg around again. Then he bent over at the waist and started punching toward the ground. Then again with the leg. Then he leaned way back and took a few swings at the gray and damp sky while kicking and swinging his leg.

            The more I watched the less it seemed like a stupid tai chi routine, and more like the antics of a crazy man having some sort of slow motion fit.

            I began to wonder if maybe it might not be prudent to cross the street before getting too close, then decided that it would be much funnier if I didn’t cross the street. I continued walking, but kept my eye on him.

Once I was within potential striking range, he stopped with the shenanigans, stood upright, stepped off to the side and let me pass as he bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. I didn’t look back.

            A few minutes later I was home, and strangely calm in spite of the rampant insanity on the streets of Brooklyn. Maybe that was it—troubled as most of these people seemed to be, I still preferred meeting them on the street to meeting the people who’d start clogging the sidewalks in about an hour.


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