SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 4, 2016

A Long History of an Unfortunate Tendency

 

I was on my way home from still another neurologist appointment Thursday afternoon. Turning the corner onto my block, I ran into my downstairs neighbor, Erik. He’s a low-key cynical kid in his late twenties who’s read a book or two, has decent taste in music, smokes Camels, drinks Jack Daniels, and has no patience for his own generation. Morgan and I consider ourselves mighty lucky in the new neighbor lottery. He and his wife live on the first floor with their two daughters (one a toddler, the other a newborn), two cats, and two dogs.

            “Hey Erik, what goes on?”

            “Ah, not much. Just taking my daughter to the park. So how’d the appointment go?”

            “Oh, it was no big deal. Inconclusive, but that’s to be expected. Only downside was it meant I had to go back to fucking Park Slope. Can’t step foot into that goddamn neighborhood without my head exploding with Technicolor genocidal fantasies. Best goddamn justification there is for using the fucking neutron bomb. Fucking Park Slope.”

            With that, I wished him a good day and turned to continue on down the block. As I turned, however, someone said, “nice to meet you.”

            It was a woman’s voice. It wasn’t Erik’s wife, either. That wouldn’t have made any sense, as I’ve met her countless times over the months. I paused and turned back.

            “Hi,” the woman said, shaking my hand. “I’m Erik’s mom.”

            “Oh. Hello. Nice to meet you, too.”

            Yes, well. People who know me know that save for rare exceptions, I tend not to talk very much. Too many people talk too much as it is, and I generally find the practice an exhausting waste of time. The problem is, when I do bother to speak, I have an unfortunate tendency to say grossly, if accidentally, inappropriate things without being conscious of who might be within earshot. Now that I’m blind I suppose I kind of sort of have an excuse for this, but it was a problem long before I lost my sight. Guess my inner censor has been on the fritz for a long time, if it ever worked at all.

            When I was seventeen, I was working in a B. Dalton’s in a shopping mall in downtown Green Bay. Late one Saturday afternoon, I was shelving some new arrivals when the manager came up behind me.

            “Hey Jim,” she said. “did a woman call this morning and ask you to set aside a copy of The Joy of Cooking for her?”

            “Oh, yeah,” I said without turning around. “Jesus she was nuts. A complete whack job. Don’t know what the hell her problem was. Maybe she was off her meds or something.”

            “Well,” my manager said, “she’s right here, and would like to pick it up.”

            Years later while I was working as the receptionist at the New York Press, there was a mild to-do when our primary competition, the Village Voice, righteously announced they would no longer be running hooker classifieds in the back pages. The Press had no such idiotic plans, given hooker ads have always been the life’s blood of the alternative weeklies. The day after the Voice’s announcement, a local TV news crew showed up at the office to interview the classifieds manager about this. The classifieds manager at the time was a nice if slow-witted large black woman, and the interview took place right beside my desk while I was trying to work. The next day another staffer stopped by to ask me how I thought it went.

            “Oh, you know Yolanda. She put on her hifalutin voice and tried to pretend to be smart for two minutes. But she kept using words wrong.” Then I offered up my best Yolanda impersonation.

            Still annoyed by the disruption the interview had caused, I had apparently forgotten that Yolanda’s office with its wide-open door was directly behind me.

            Sometimes it’s not even a question of being unaware or unconscious of something. Sometimes even when I’m fully aware of the circumstances I get caught up in the moment. Around the same time as the Yolanda gaffe, Morgan (who was well accustomed to this sort of thing by then) and I were in a bar where a bunch of off-duty bartenders, many of whom we knew, were trading stories about the most obnoxious ways asshole customers try to get their attention. Yes, it was an Irish bar and yes, all the bartenders in question were Irish, but what the hell choice did I have given the context but to quote Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing? It didn’t occur to me until later why Morgan was kicking me so hard in the ankle, or why she got up and stepped outside as the first words came out of my mouth. “ . . . so this Russian wrestler bangs his empty bottle on the bar and shouts, ‘How ‘bout some service, ya stupid-lookin’ Irish pig?’”

            The bartenders didn’t find that nearly as funny as I did.

            Then there are the kids. I’m generally uncomfortable around children, so tend to ignore them and carry on as if they weren’t there. That may be inconsiderate on my part on several levels, but what are you gonna do? And in terms of what I’m saying, I generally assume they probably wouldn’t understand it anyway, so why censor myself? On the flip side, if they’re old enough to carry on a conversation, I just deal with them the same way I would anyone else. When I was a kid I always appreciated those adults who didn’t condescend to me, and so I’m just offering these kids that same consideration. Problem is, this doesn’t take their antsy overprotective parents into account. I had neighbors in Park Slope who took to simply grabbing their kids and running the other way whenever I approached, apparently out of fear I’d say something else inappropriate. But come on, you ask me what I’m working on, and if I happen to be working on a brutal murder case with heavy sadomasochistic overtones, I’m not gonna lie to you. Hell, the damn kids are gonna have to learn about S&M murders at some point, right? Jesus.

            After I went blind it pretty much became a given every time we stepped outside the apartment that the wrong thing was going to come out of my mouth at the wrong time. It took me a long time, too long maybe, to properly interpret Morgan’s little hints, like pinching my arm or kicking me under the table, to mean something like “There’s a large Asian family at the next table, so please stop using the term ‘chinaman.’”

            Which may help explain why it’s better I generally don’t speak at all. Unless I’m drunk. At least the unexpected introduction to Erik’s mom turned out okay. Later I learned she’d voted for Trump, so apparently references to genocide and the neutron bomb were just fine by her.

 

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