SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 25, 2010

Next Time I’ll Take the Scaffolding

 

There are times—usually when it’s raining—when it feels like the entire city is under construction, and always has been under construction. Every block is a deadly, confounding maze of haphazard scaffolding, treacherous pedestrian detours, safety cones, caution tape, orange plastic barrels and diesel-belching heavy machinery. The streets are torn up, the sidewalks are torn up, the buildings swathed in plastic sheeting. Yet for all of it, all the noise and grit and hubbub, nothing ever seems to get done. Once in place, the construction sites never go away. They just seem to grow like tumors, with new construction sites appearing where the old ones end.

            So it was raining hard one recent afternoon, the wind whipping down the streets and around the corners, and I was trying to tap out the simple four-block route from the subway to the East Village bar where, if all had gone according to plan, Morgan would be waiting. It was a simple trip, one I’d made hundreds of times, except that today quite unexpectedly both sides of the road and the road itself had been transformed into a massive construction site that seemed to expand in front of and around me as I moved. Diesel-powered vehicles and air compressors were roaring off to my right. Every third step it seemed, I was encountering another strip of caution tape or another makeshift plywood wall. And the rain was coming down harder, which also meant that along with the cranes and the back loaders, I had to be on my guard against oblivious umbrella-swinging pedestrians.

            It was slow-going on my part and there was much high-pitched whimpering involved, but I finally reached the corner where I had to make a right turn. After that it would be smooth sailing. But when I tapped around the corner I found myself in the middle of yet another new construction site with more scaffolding and more gravel and more barricades. Those scaffolds are particularly worrisome—once the wind picks up the way it had that afternoon, there’s always a chance the whole thing can topple down on you like an extraordinarily heavy house of cards.

            Onward I tapped through the rain and under the dripping scaffold, holding my breath, driven by the knowledge that somewhere half a block ahead the warm safety of the bar awaited.

            A few minutes later, after feeling my way around some more caution tape and bouncing off a phone booth and some clumsily-parked bikes, I was finally able to let my breath out as I pulled the door open and stepped inside. I shook the oily rain from my hat and reached to untie my trench coat belt when it struck me that something wasn’t right.

            There was always music playing in that bar, and the murmur of voices punctuated by the clink of glasses. But none of those things were present. It was warm and dry where I stood, but silent. I took a few steps forward and bumped into something solid. A wall that had never been there before. I was thinking that maybe the bar had shut down for some reason, but if that was the case, why was the front door open? And if the place was closed, where would I go to find Morgan? (These were foolish thoughts of course, but these are the kinds of things that come to mind when I’m momentarily confused by my surroundings.) I took a step to the right, where the bar should have been. But instead of bumping into stools, I found an open doorway. That had never been there before, either. I could hear the sound of someone inside typing on a computer keyboard. They said nothing, and neither did I.

            Okay, so it took an unusually long time to puzzle out the fact that I was not in the bar. I had obviously opened the wrong door. Carefully retracing my steps, I found the door again, and stepped back out onto the sidewalk and into the rain.

            “Well that wasn’t the right place at all,” I said aloud, mostly for my own amusement. Now I knew how Rip Torn felt most of the time.

            I stood there a moment, not sure if I had gone too far or not far enough.

            Fortunately, a passing woman in a soggy fur coat (who remarkably enough wasn’t talking on a cell phone) happened to overhear my mumbling. She paused. “Can I help you find something?”

            I guessed she was in her fifties. Her voice seemed friendly enough so I decided to take her up on it. “Why, yes you can,” I said as I reached for her arm. “I’m looking for the bar.” I’m never sure how people are going to react to that. Blind guy looking for the bar—it doesn’t bode well.

            “Oh,” she said, her voice turning icy. “My least favorite place in the world.”

            Oh, shit. Here we go. Well, at least she was leading me someplace. I just hoped it wasn’t her church.

            “Are you one of those people who comes out of that place and starts pounding on my door at three in the morning?” Apparently she lived next door.

            “I . . . don’t think so,” I sort-of assured her.

            “The noise at that place is awful ,” she went on, her voice turning more bitter, “and in the summer all that cigarette smoke comes right in my window. I hate those people.”

            “Uh-huh,” I said, praying we’d get there soon. “Well I assure you that I’m a very quiet and sober man.”

            It was a terrible lie, and she didn’t seem to believe it for a second. She stopped and turned. “Here’s that bar,” she said, her deep contempt undisguised. “Enjoy your drink.”

            It seems I had turned in two doors early—a mistake I would never make in the future. I thanked her kindly for her assistance, found the handle to the wooden door. and pulled. Inside I heard music and murmuring and clinking glasses. A moment later Morgan grabbed my damp hand and led me to a stool.

 

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