October 11, 2015

Very Small Worlds After All


As per usual it was around eight a.m. and I was at the bodega across the street, standing in the short line waiting to buy the day’s beer and smokes. A tall, thin man passed in front of me with a “‘scuse me there, buddy,” then stopped next to me. It was a small, narrow shop, so I figured it was just his way of marking his place in line without getting in the way of anyone who wanted to grab a paper cup of sad coffee from the pot on top of the cooler. It was overcast outside, the first true autumn day after a cruel summer.

            “Your name Jim?” he asked, and my stomach shriveled some.

            “Mm-hmm,” I said. I’d had too many weird, unexpected encounters with weird, unexpected people in this bodega as it stood, but didn’t have the time that morning to waste it on any more autistics, drunken bikers, or insane, hopped-up presidential candidates. But none of those others had correctly guessed my name before. Apart from Bill and Mimi in the apartment below ours and Gary in the house next door, no one -- and I mean no one -- in that neighborhood knew my name, I was just “buddy,” “chief,” “boss,” “poppa,” ”pal,” or in the case of one Egyptian-run convenience store, ”Mr. Habib Number One.” That this guy had guessed my name made things far worse.

            “Jim . . . Knipfel?”

            No, make that far, far worse.

            “Uh-huh,” I responded after some hesitation.

            “Hey man, I used to be in this band, and we played a show together at fuckin’, what was it, Mercury Lounge!”

            Jesus, then it all came back. Really weird thing, though, was that it had also come back unprompted less than a week earlier. And it had come back specifically because I’d been thinking of this guy now standing next to me in the bodega at eight on a Tuesday morning—a guy who’s name, of course, I’d lost long ago in the flood of assorted intoxicants.

            “Wait,” I asked. “You were playing, what, drums that night, wasn’t it?”

            “Nah, that night I was on bass.”

            Back when I was at the Guggenheim, I worked with another guy named Jim, who’d fronted an extremely popular indie band in the late Eighties. That band had broken up by the time he started at the museum, but he had a new band that played around town quite a bit. Jim and I became good friends, went out drinking a lot, and I liked this new band of his. Went to see them play at CBGB, Continental, Brownies, a few other clubs that no longer exist.

            It’s a long story, but sometime around 1997 I was conscripted into putting on an Elvis show in a public venue. Jim and I were still good friends long after we left the Guggenheim, so I in turn conscripted his band to play back up one night at the Mercury Lounge in the East Village as I mumbled my way nervously through “Little Sister,” “Trouble,” “If I Can Dream,” and a handful of other lesser known Elvis songs. Well, we only had a chance to rehearse once, but at least the band was pretty great.

            Pete was his name, he reminded me there in the bodega, and I remembered back then, almost twenty years ago now, it was a big deal that he was from Bay Ridge. Bay Ridge at the time, see, was kind of a joke, a throwback to the Brooklyn of Hubert Selby’s Last Exit, home to goombahs and louts and thugs in wifebeaters and gold chains, retired cops and firemen and mobsters. It wasn’t much known for producing young alternative rock types.

            Two decades later the neighborhood’s changed some, but not a whole helluva lot yet, which is why I love it here. A week before that Tuesday morning in the bodega, I’d been thinking about Pete and that night at the Mercury Lounge, wondering if he was still around the neighborhood. Well, guess that answers that.

            “I’m just coming home now,” he said, but it had nothing to do with being a hard-rockin’ joe deep into middle age. “I’ve been working the night shift for the MTA for the past twelve years.”

            So we caught up a bit on the fates of the other guys from that band, as I’d since lost touch with all of them. Last I’d heard from Jim he and his new wife were running a hotel in Vermont, but I guess they’d since relocated to Nashville, where he was still in a band.

            Then we chatted about the neighborhood, the deeply-held urge among the locals to keep it just as it is, to keep the money and hipsters out of the equation, which everyone senses is a losing battle. He told me what restaurants were better for takeout than sit down, and the local bars where his cover band (made up mostly of retired cops and firemen) had been playing.

            Then things took a strange turn, as it came out Pete had spent his entire life on my block, only recently moving to a new place with his wife. Even then, though, he’d only moved around the corner, less than a block away.

            As if to prove a point of some kind, all those neighbors who call me buddy (if they acknowledge me at all) paraded past on cue, each one greeting him warmly by name.

            Even with him working the night shift that way, it was just a little odd we’d never run into one another at any point over the last five years. I mean, it’s a big neighborhood, yes, but a small block. The other strange thing was that he still remembered tiny, insignificant things I’d said and written back then, things I couldn’t recall myself if I’d tried or wanted to. I did remember that when I knew him, he’d quit drinking and had recently kicked heroin, so maybe his mind was just clearer than mine had ever been. But the thing that gave me pause only later was that he knew my wife and I lived in a second-floor apartment even though I never mentioned that we lived on the second floor.

            Anyway, I’m gonna try not to think about that one, or the fact he’d suddenly appeared out of nowhere a week after I’d thought of him for the first time in almost twenty years.


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