SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 10, 2015

The Neighborhood Bum

 

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but there are times when this block really does start to feel like “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” or “Sesame Street.” We’ve got retired cops and firemen, construction workers, old gossips in curlers, Egyptians, Chinese, Turks, Greeks, Irish, Italians, loud, friendly drunkards, two or three autistics, an academic or two, whatever the hell you like, all living on this one little block, all helping out, all shoveling their sidewalks and pulling in their neighbor’s trash cans, all being unusually friendly. Strangers say hello when you walk down the street, for godsakes.

            It had occurred to me the one thing the block was missing was out-and-out bums. That’s one thing we didn’t seem to have. I’d run into a couple elsewhere in the neighborhood, but even they were the charming, funny, insightful kind of bums you find in old movies.

            All that changed last week.

            I guess he’s been around for several years now, but only in the last few days have I started to have direct contact with him. Up to last week, the one and only time he was pointed out to me he was passed out on the sidewalk, curled up outside the now-defunct car service, snoring loudly. Big, flabby guy a few inches taller than me and three times as round.

            It had been a long time since I’d seen him, even passed out, but the winter may help explain that. Once the temperatures started rising and the ice began to fade, there he was like the first flower of spring. And like that first flower of spring, he was standing upright.

            I think that’s why I didn’t make the connection until a few days later. I only remembered him as that snoring beached whale outside the car service. But late one morning last week as I was heading across the street to the bodega to pick up that day’s beer and smokes, there was a big guy hovering around outside by the gumball machines and the mechanical horsey ride that played tinny versions of “It’s a Small World” and “Old MacDonald” whenever anyone plunked in a quarter.

            This in itself was not that unusual—lots of people hang out there to talk or smoke or wait, and apart from warning me to watch my step and be careful, they all mind their own business. But as I passed this guy, he quietly asked me something. I was so generally preoccupied I had to stop and ask him to repeat himself.

            “Can I have fifty cents?” he asked, still quietly.

            “Oh,” I said, a little startled, never having had anyone on that block hit me up for change before. “Okay.” I dug deep into my right coat pocket (which is where I keep my loose change) and pulled out a small fistful. “Here,” I said as I sprinkled the coins into his meaty, pale hand. “I don’t know what’s there, but it’s yours.”

            Without another word he took the handful of change and darted in front of me, pushing his way through the bodega’s front door and marching to the counter.

            As I ducked behind him and tapped my way to the back coolers to get the day’s sixer, I heard the coins jangle on the counter as he told the Egyptian, “Gimme a Newport one hundred.”His voice was still quiet and not all there, though I couldn’t tell if it was because he was already drunk or just a little off in general. The thing that really surprised me was that I’d never known that place to sell loosies before.

            “I don’t got no hundreds, guy,” the counterman told him.

            The bum was counting out the coins, adding them up as he went. “Yeah, gimme a hundred.”

            “I don’t got no hundreds.”

            “Yeah yeah, here,” the bum said, distracted, either not listening or refusing to hear what he was hearing. He shoved a selection of coins across the counter.” Gimme two hundreds.”

            By this time I was standing behind him with my six pack, waiting patiently in the otherwise empty deli, curious to see where this was headed.

            “I tell you, man, I don’t got no hundreds!”

            Something finally clicked in the bum’s head. “No?”

            “No.”

            “Well, gimme a hundred.”

            The Egyptian eventually slid him two loosies of an unknown brand, and the bum disappeared out the door again. As the clerk counted out the change and dropped it in the register, I commented, “Never seen him around here before.”

            “Yeah, he’s here all the time. He’s nuts. Just nuts.”

            Alright, then . . . ah, gimme a pack of Marlboros, too.”

            Three days later I was on my way back from the grocery store, planning to stop at the same bodega for yet more beer and smokes. I was in the middle of the block when I heard someone say, “Couldja spare a little change?”

            It was the same fat bum with the light, not-quite-all-there voice.

            I paused, and dug into my right pocket. “Again I don’t know what’s here, but you can have it.”

            “So . . . ” he said after taking the coins. “You goin’ across the street to get more beer?”

            For someone who seemed pretty out of it, it seems he was a pretty keen observer. “Yeah, guess that’s exactly where I was going.”

            I continued walking, and he began walking alongside me. I could see where this was headed.

            “I’m gonna get a cigarette. They charge seventy-five cents.”

            “For a loosie? That’s pretty hefty. So what do you smoke?”

            “Newport one hundreds." His answer was so firm and immediate and unshakable I figured it wouldn’t even be worth offering him one of mine as a gesture. Then I began to wonder if he might’ve interpreted that as an offer to buy him a pack. Yeah, well, too bad for him if he did.

            We crossed the street and he darted ahead to get the door, holding it for me. As expected, that was his ploy. We walk in together, everyone will assume he’s with me, and that will legitimize his presence. “Thanks,” I said as I passed him.

            “Can I have a dollar bill? he whispered.

            I said nothing, and he followed close behind.

            “Gimme a Newport one hundred,” he called to the Egyptian.

            Instead of replying, the clerk said to me, “Is he bothering you? Asking you for money?”

            “It’s fine,” I told him.

            “No!” the Egyptian shouted. “I told you to get out! Stop bothering people!”

            The bum stood there beside me, and the clerk, knowing what I wanted, headed back to the cooler to get a sixer.

            “I don’t think he likes me,” the bum said.

            While the clerk was away, I pulled out my wallet and slipped him a dollar, which he took without a word.

            “I’m goin’ over to Fifth Ave. I don’t think this guy likes me.”

            Then he was gone again, and the Egyptian returned.

            “Three years ago I tell him to get out and not come back. He bug the customers for money. Then he go away. He was away for a long time. Three years. I don’ know where he went. Jail maybe. Now he’s back.”

            As I paid for the beer and smokes I started wondering. If I was gonna start running into this guy on a daily basis, how wise was it to slip him a buck?

 

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