by JIM KNIPFEL
February 17, 2013
“You need any help gettin’ across the street or anywhere?”
It was early Sunday and the streets were otherwise empty. I was waiting at the corner of Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge, on my way to the subway. The question was one I was used to hearing a couple of times a day down here.
“Nah, I’ll be fine. Really. But thanks.” That usually takes care of things pretty quick and easy. They can go away still thinking they’ve done a nice thing, and I can be left the hell alone.
“Hey, I still got an hour before church, I’m happy to help.”
Well, so much for my silly theory. He sounded to be in his early sixties, his voice heavy with a Brooklyn accent and ragged from smoke. It was a nice gesture, sure, but the last thing I was in the mood for was having churchy here tag along like a sad mongrel so he could tell me all about Jesus and then scamper off to tell all his righteous friends he’d done a good thing. I also wasn’t in the mood to be hit up for a few spare bucks, which this guy would undoubtedly do at some point, given the sound and smell of him. I knew how these guys operated—they’ll do you what they perceive to be a good turn, but ain’t nothing in this world comes for free. They deserve a little something back.
“No, that’s not necessary. I know my way around, and I’m just going to the subway. I’ll be fine. But thanks anyway.
“C’mon, the light’s changed. I’ll walk with you over there.”
To his credit, he didn’t grab my elbow at that point and start dragging, but he did follow me across the street. For me that’s just as bad, if not worse.
“Everyone calls me Cowboy,” he announced. “That’s from when I was playin’ pool. Put myself through college with what I made shootin’ pool. Got to the point where my dad said if I brought one more trophy into the house I should, y’know, just not come home.”
“Yeah. There’s three games I really like best, and that’s pool, backgammon, an’ chess.”
“Now, you’re startin’ to veer to your left, and there’s a tree about, ah, fifteen steps ahead.”
Yeah, I know, I thought, I’m just trying to take myself out of this picture.
“Y’know,” he went on, “Before I was born again . . . ”
Oh, here we go.
“ . . . I didn’t really appreciate how precious all our senses are. But then I had to jump out of a burning building and shattered my ankle. I was in a wheelchair for six months, and then on crutches for another two. My ankle’s all metal today. When it was raining a couple days ago? Man, I sure felt it then—hurt like a toothache all day.”
“Really.” I’d made it past that first tree unharmed, so I was starting to look for another.
“So now—I know I’m a hypocrite to say this, given as I’m such a heavy smoker—but I try every day to appreciate what we got. That’s why I got such sympathy for people who’re disabled some way.”
“If you could see, I’d play cards with you.”
Sounds like a hoot.
“But man, you do not wanna play pool with me. Not unless you’re ready to lose your rent.”
“I’m not very good as it is.”
“But I don’t play so much anymore. Used to play over at that place on Third. Lotta greats came through there, I’ll tell ya. Hey, careful—you’re veerin’ to your left again. An’ the corner’s comin’ up here, oh, about sixty steps or so. Sixty-five steps ahead.”
“You’re goin’ to the subway?”
“Hey, ya wanna use my card? I’ll getcha in. I got more MetroCards than I know what to do with. They just keep sendin’ ‘em to me.”
“Nah, that’s not necessary, but thanks. Got mine right here. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, but if you change your mind just let me know, okay?”
“I will.” Christ, I thought you said you had church.
“Did you know that I’m the only guy I know who can say he slept with a monkey for three years?”
A thousand jokes, all of them vile but hilarious, cha-cha’ed into my head, and I left them there. I got the idea he wouldn’t think they were very funny at all. “A monkey, you say.”
“Yeah, when I was a kid I lived out West with my dad—that’s parta why they call me Cowboy—an’ one day he came home with this whatcha call an orangutan. Gladys was her name. Weighed three hundred and sixty pounds when she got older. Okay, we’re comin’ up on the corner here in about ten steps, an’ you’ll wanna take a . . . ”
“Left,” And a quick one, too, if I can help it.
“Right—a left. Ha! An’ who’s on first, what’s on second, an’ I dunno who’s on third. An’ Today’s pitchin’ tomorrow. Get it? It’s like that old routine. So anyway. Gladys. She coulda crushed my chest with one hand if she wanted. But she was real sweet. House-trained, even. She didn’t wear diapers or nothin’. Knew how to use the terlit herself. Even wiped her own ass.”
“Hey, you know what you remind me of?”
An annoyed blindo who just wants to be left the fuck alone so he can walk to the goddamn subway in peace every once in awhile?
“That Blake poem.”
I was hoping he didn’t mean Robert. He then went on to recite the first half of William Blake’s “The Mental Traveler,” interrupting it to let me know if I was veering or to tell me how many steps away from the corner we were. I didn’t exactly see why that particular poem would remind him of me, and I always get uncomfortable (more so) when people insist on reciting things at me, but I must admit I was fairly impressed to hear this Brooklyn cowboy pool shark recite Blake.
“Yeah,” he said after admitting he couldn’t remember the second half of the poem, “I write poetry myself. In fact I just won a big contest.”
“Yeah, the National Poetry Awards . . . but I gave all my winnings to the St. Jude Children’s Hospital.”
“That was very nice of you.”
“A hundred thousand dollars, and I gave it to them. And I hardly got a penny to my name.”
Oh, here comes the pinch.
“But I just gave it to ‘em. Okay, you got the subway stop comin’ up here.”
He about had me up to the poetry contest. I’ve learned not to dismiss the stories people tell about themselves. The crazier they sound, in fact, the more likely they are to be true. So I was willing to accept that he put himself through school with his pool hall winnings and lived with an orangutan for three years. But there’s not a poetry contest on earth—and especially not in the States—that pays a hundred grand. For poetry? Who would be that stupid? Hell, short of the Nobel I can’t think of any writing award—even awards for, y’know, real books—that pays close to that.
All that mattered at this point, though, was that he stop following me. I was getting the fear that he was going to get on the damn train with me, counting steps all the way.
To put a stop to this nonsense, I paused at the top of the stairs and stuck out my hand. “Well, Cowboy, it’s been a . . . ”
“Okay, now the rail is to your right there, and the steps are going down.”
I sighed, dropped my hand, and started tapping my way down the steps with Cowboy trailing close behind, telling me how many I had left. His God was gonna be pissed if he showed up late for chirch, wasn’t he?
Downstairs he he offered encouraging directions to guide me through a route I’d walked hundreds of times, and I was by now convinced that he really was going to follow me onto the train. Well, Morgan would be surprised, I guess. But then he stopped at the turnstiles—or rather I stopped at the turnstiles and blocked his path.
“Okay, Cowboy, that’s fine. I can make it from here.”
“You’re sure? You’re goin’ into Manhattan, right? Well then, you’ll wanna go to your left when you—’
I nearly boxed the old rummy’s ears, screaming “I know! I know! I know!” But didn’t. Instead I thanked him politely and shook his hand.
“Yeah, well, I gotta get this milk over to the church, “ he said. “I bring the milk every week.”
Somehow that sounded incredibly sinister, and had he been anyone else, had he had any idea, and if he hadn’t been so damned sincere and lonely (even if he was full of lies), I would have told him as much. Instead I thanked him again, he had his god bless me, and we went our ways as I vowed I would take all necessary steps to avoid him in the future.
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