SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 16, 2012

This Is Starting To Annoy Me

 

The woman sitting across from me on the Brooklyn-bound R train was probably in her late fifties. Her heavy Brooklyn accent rasped out over tattered vocal chords scarred by a lifetime of cigarette smoke and gin. I was busy keeping track of the stops and so not paying any attention until I heard her say, “Yeah, then some son of a bitch dropped a dime on me and I ended up in stir.” That’s when my ears perked up. It ain’t every day I find myself in the presence of an honest-to-goodness hardboiled character.

            Sadly, at the next stop the friend she was with stood to leave. “Aren’t you coming?” he asked.

            “Nah,” she told him. “I gotta get down to Bay Ridge to pick up the dough that mug owes me.”

            After her friend was gone I wanted to step across the aisle and fill his empty seat. “Look,” I wanted to tell her. “I don’t care what you’re up to or what you’ve done—I just want to follow you around all day with a tape recorder.”

            She’d probably let me, too. You get far enough south in Brooklyn people are just different that way.

            About six months after I moved down here, Morgan noticed something. “When I used to talk to you after you’d run some errands in Park Slope,” she said. “All you could talk about was how much you wanted to kill everyone. Now you get back from the post office and tell me about the funny things that happened and how nice the people were.”

            It was true, and it was insane. In Park Slope I couldn’t step outside without choking on the noxious fumes of smug self-satisfaction that settled thick and heavy over the streets. Even the goddamn grade schoolers (Orson and Beaumont and all their little playmates) were better than me and knew it. As much as I wanted to bring about their wholesale slaughter, it still made me feel good in a strange way, knowing without question that if they despised me the way they clearly did I must be doing something right.

            Now what the hell happens? After stepping out of the subway, I can’t make it the five fucking blocks back to my apartment without half a dozen people offering assistance, kind wishes, or stopping to ask me questions about blindness. Straightforward, innocent, and good questions, like “how do you know when to cross the street?”

            I can’t go into the goddamn grocery store without another three or four people stopping to ask if I need any help finding anything. Two days ago I was in there feeling my way through the bread section when the guy restocking the shelves asked, “So . . . you buyin’ some bread?”

            “Yup,” I told him, resisting the urge to give him a pat on the back for being a bright, perceptive boy.

            “Well, that’s very good.”

            Then when I finally grabbed a loaf, he stood and said “Here, give me that.”

            “Give you what?”

            He gently pulled the loaf from my hand and replaced it with a fresh one. “Here. This one’s better.”

            The other morning three separate old Chinese ladies out scouring the neighborhood for empty bottles to cash in smiled and greeted me warmly. I don’t know if it’s because they’re friendly or because they realize I’m the one who’s putting their damn kids through school.

            There’s an old man with a walker and a small dog who lives over by Fourth Avenue who takes a slow, scraping hobble around the block early every morning. As he does this, he’s taken it upon himself to greet everyone he sees with a cheerful hello. Sometimes he sits himself down on one of the park benches along Fifth to greet people all day long.

            The neighbors know my name and pause to chat whenever I tap past on my way elsewhere.

            The old hunchbacked Italian who cuts my hair (I think I’m gonna have another story about him in the near future) stepped out of his shop last weekend in the pouring rain to shake my damn hand and say hello.

            Christ, even the angry Islamic militant who runs the bodega on the corner (the one who listens to Al-Jazeera all day and won’t look at Jews) is always real nice and gives me a deal on smokes.

            And for as few kids as there are around here, those who are have been raised well. They play outside instead of spending their days updating their Facebook pages, and they’re considerate to the adults. This summer a group of them was out front playing stickball for godsakes! And Morgan saw my loud and boisterous neighbor across the street teaching a six-year-old neighbor kid how to ride a bike.

            Everyone’s so goddamn NICE.

            It finally hit me—what the fuck is going on here? It’s starting to feel like I’m living in Stepford, but a Stepford populated with older blue collar workers with thick Brooklyn accents—and older blue collar workers from another era. It’s either Stepford or one of those Twilight Zone episodes where a character finds himself dropped into a topsy-turvy world, and by the end of the episode he has to learn some kind of fundamental lesson.

            Well okay how’s this for a fundamental lesson? As nice a change as it was at first, this is starting to give me the heebie-jeebies. It’s a bit too much like the idyllic time and place in which I grew up (save for the Brooklyn accents). But even as idyllic as my childhood seems now, I was still surrounded by neighborhood kids who were vicious little monsters and adults who were drunken, wife-beating northern rednecks. It was there that, happy and loved as I was, I came to embrace nihilism.

            But this? This here is just plain weird. I’m almost starting to miss the rampant assholery of Park Slope. At least the open and pure and solid hatred I felt there every single day was real and true and invigorating. It gave me the energy I needed. This here, this is just pleasant, like bobbing along to nowhere in a sea of warm milk.

            Well, at least everyone who works at the drugstore around the corner is a dick. That’s something I can hold onto, I guess. Maybe I’ll pay them a visit tomorrow.

            The irony of it all is that after switching out of a neighborhood full of assholes for a neighborhood full of pleasant people, an apartment I love, and some extremely kind and helpful neighbors, my life went to smash. The Bunker was flooded four times, my back blew out, my eyes took that final plunge, my career was suddenly in ruins, I had no money and no hope left. But the neighbors sure were nice.

           Is it fucking worth it?

 

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