SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 7, 2014

Something to Add to That “Things to Avoid” List

 

It was an illustrious duo I found myself with on Tuesday morning. Homer was a close friend, a musician and visual artist from San Francisco. I’d known him for a quarter-century now, though I’d been obsessed with his work long before that. That we’d become friends still baffles me a bit.

            I’d only met Don a few months earlier, but he was a respected documentary filmmaker in the process of making a, yes, documentary film about Homer and a few of his cohorts and shenanigans.

            Homer was in town because it seems one of his recent works had been accepted as part of MoMA’s permanent collection, and Don was along to record the event. He had a couple of things in MoMA already, Homer did, but I still thought it was pretty cool. The three of us were in the East Village at a sidewalk cafe on Second Avenue. Where the hell else are you gonna go with a couple of visiting artists, right, but a sidewalk cafe in the East Village? I’d just hoped that, considering it was over ninety degrees and humid, they might opt to be more comfortable sitting inside with all the air conditioning and such, but you know how these artists are.

            In proper artistic fashion, we sat there for nearly three hours (me guzzling water the whole time, as my Nordic blood does not take well to the heat) chatting about everything from film preservation to a few oddballs we knew in common to Don’s documentary-in-progress. It was as fine a time as ever, but eventually we had to head out. They had things to do before the big MoMA business, and I was on my way to meet Morgan. Homer took my elbow and maneuvered me around the too-small metal chairs and the too-short fence of the cafe back out onto the sidewalk. We were all heading north for at least a few blocks before our paths split, so we continued chatting as we had been. My god, though, it was a hot one. Dog-choking hot, even, and my hat wasn’t making anything any easier.

            Then, as Homer began leading me across Ninth Street, he balked, stepping back up onto the curb and pulling me back with him. “Yeah, I think that’s a wise decision,” Don said. From my perspective and a long history with that area, I assumed the light had changed or some insane asshole driver was barreling down the street toward us.

            I wasn’t sure exactly why we were still standing there on the curb, not moving for the next couple of minutes. Maybe with their keen eyes they spotted the careening driver in question all the way over on Avenue C, and were simply being over-cautious. Neither of them offered anything by way of explanation. Neither said anything at all.

            “So . . . ” I finally ventured, breaking the silence. “Um, are we waiting for the light?” That’s the thing about not being able to see a goddamn thing. If no one explicitly tells you what’s happening, you generally figure the most boring explanation is likely the correct one. Guess anything else like, say, “so are the aliens landing or what?” and you just come off like a crackpot.

            “Well,” Homer said quietly and slowly as he began leading me across the street. “It seems there’s a fellow here . . . ” He seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “ . . . With something on his mind.”

            Once on the opposite curb my ears could finally penetrate beneath all the horns and squeals and rumbles of the midday Second Avenue traffic. I heard a few worried mutters and some grunting as Homer led me through a fairly tight space past a group of people. Nothing I heard, none of those mutterings, gave me any more of a clue what was going on around me. Once we were clear he finally explained more fully.

            “There was a man on the corner back there. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, but he was swinging a long metal pipe.”

            “Really.” Okay, this is where being blind gets to be fun. Give me that much information and my imagination can turn it into the worst possible scenario. I imagined Jim Brown in his tattered underwear, wild-eyed and drooling and holding a six-foot long length of lead pipe over his head, jumping from one foot to another as dozens of pedestrians cowered in fear in bodega entrances.

            “Yeaaah.” He sounded more concerned than I would have expected. “I didn’t want him to go flailing it at you.”

            “Aw, hell,” I told him, raising the cane in front of me like the sabre it was meant to be. “Bastard came at me I’d give him a, well, something anyway.”

            “It wouldn’t have lasted very long,” Homer said. “You didn’t see this guy.”

            Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t have been much of a fight. Maybe it really was Jim Brown in tattered underpants. But I was still glad to know that pipe-wielding crackhead was out there. It never even occurred to me to ask why Homer and Don simply hadn’t crossed the avenue and walked me down the far side of the street out of harm’s way. New York had been scrubbed clean of everything but homogeneous oblivious assholes these past two decades or so, and the idea of a crazy shirtless man all hopped up on goofballs and swinging a lead pipe at passers-by on a sweltering day put a little song in my heart. He was a welcome touch of nostalgic danger and potential ugly death, just like things we used to see on a daily basis when the city was interesting. Unless of course he was simply an actor hired by the city to give the tourists a little thrill. But I doubt that.

            Homer, Don and I reached a corner a few blocks north and paused. That was the point where I needed to head west and they needed to head east.

            “Well,” I told Homer, “if nothing else consider ‘shirtless angry men with pipes’ something you might want to add to your Things to Avoid list.”

            “Yeah,” he said, considering it, “I think I’ll do that.”

 

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