January 20, 2019

Snippets XI: Bud the C.H.U.D.


In the days following the release of the Dead Celebrities column every year, I inevitably hear from people who point out the notables I somehow overlooked. I’m always happy to hear from these people, and am sometimes shocked at the names I missed. This year was no exception. So by way of correction, last week’s list should also have included avant-garde guitarist and No Wave luminary Glen Branca, conceptual artist, fraud and asshole Lothar Baumgarten, and Al Reinert, director of stylish, almost mystical documentaries about space exploration, most notably For All Mankind.

            Sorry about that.

*        *       *

“Hey, you think I could buy a cigarette offen you for a dollar?”

            I had just left a doctor’s office and was heading for the corner when he stopped me.

            “No need for that,” I said as I reached into my pocket. “We’re all in this together.” I handed him the smoke, and he thanked me.

            “Hey,” he said then. “You think I could buy a second one offen you for a dollar?”

            “Well, okay, in that case I’ll take the dollar.” He sounded like a young guy, maybe in his early thirties, and definitely a little ragged around the edges. I couldn’t tell if he was homeless, but guessed he might be. I reached into my pocket a second time as I heard him counting out change.

            “Fifty . . . sixty . . . eighty. I got eighty cents. That good enough?”

            “That’s just fine,” I told him as he dropped the coins in my palm and I passed him the Marlboro. Then before I knew it, he had wrapped me in a big hug. I wish people would stop hugging me in public without warning me first. The hug went on much longer than I would have liked.

            As he pulled away, he said, “Oh, man—I didn’t notice the cane. I’m real sorry.”

            “It’s fine. Not a problem.”

            “My name’s Eddie, by the way.”

            Why was I not surprised to hear that? “Well Eddie, my name’s Jim, and it’s mighty nice to meet you.” We shook hands, and then he leaned in close.

            “Hey Jim,” he half whispered. “You happen to know where I could score some Xanax?”

*        *       *

The first of the drug store’s two sliding doors hissed open. As much as I used to despise this place, for the last two months I’d been stopping by a couple of times a week after realizing that, thanks to a glitch in the system, beer was selling for half-price all the time and no one noticed. The moment I stepped through the inner sliding door into the store proper, I was confronted by a large woman with a husky and booming voice.

            “Hi sweetie!” She shouted from about two feet away. “You wanna flu shot?”

            I froze. I couldn’t tell if she was threatening or accusing, or even if she was talking to me. A hesitant finger went to my chest. “Me?”

            “Yes, you! You wanna flu shot?”

            Having been thinking about a thousand other things before entering the store, it took me a second to sort all this out.

            “Oh. Um. My wife and I got ours three weeks ago.”

            “You ROCK!” She shouted.

            “Yes, I do,” I told her. “Thank you.” Then I slowly began tapping my way through the maze of aisles to the coolers on the other side of the store, counted my way down to the fifth door, knelt down and grabbed a twelve-pack before tapping my way back to the register.

            There were two people in line in front of me. The Ancient Greek, Italian or Hungarian woman at the checkout was buying several bags of Halloween candy. “Which one is chocolate?” She asked the girl at the register in a slow and heavy accent, She sounded like Maleva the gypsy from Universal’s Wolf Man pictures.

            “What?” The checkout girl asked.

            “Which is chocolate? I heard a finger poke at the plastic bags.

            She clearly had several bags there, each containing a variety of candies, but the girl, who herself had an Eastern European accent, did her patient best to point things out to the old woman. “This one is chocolate, and, um, so is this one, and this one. This one is not. This one is . . . Wolf Man pictures.” It took some time.

            “Okay,” the old woman said. “I want another one.” With that, she left everything on the counter and hobbled slowly off in the direction of the candy aisle, which was halfway across the large store.

            “Hey, you s’pose you could ring me up?” The next guy in line asked the checkout girl. “My bus is comin’ down the street.” He was a black guy in his late thirties. I’m not sure what he was buying, but it was small and there was only one of whatever it was. “You guys shouldn’t be giving out flu shots,” he told the girl. “They’re all part of a plot. They’re trying to force us to get these things because . . . ”

            I stopped listening. The twelve-pack dangling from my left hand was getting heavy. Whoever this dumbass was, he was going to miss his bus if he didn’t shut up and get on with it.

            At last he finished laying out his conspiracy theory and paying for whatever it was before heading for the doors. The girl told me to go ahead and put the beer on the counter, as the old woman still hadn’t returned. The moment I set the case down, and this was inevitable, there she was with another bag of candy.

            “I’m just going to ring him up first,” the girl told the crone.

            “No,” the old woman said in those same slow gypsy tones. “Me first. I have car waiting.” She’d never mentioned anything about that before, and certainly hadn’t seemed in much of a hurry, but whatever.

            “Go ahead and take her first,” I said. I had no car waiting. I could sense the line behind me was getting longer. The checkout girl asked the old woman if she had a store discount card.

            “Yes . . . I will put in number.” I heard her slowly peck out the phone number on an electronic keypad.

            “I’m sorry, but that number isn’t registered.”

            “No. Then I will try another number.”

            I wasn’t getting tense about any of this. I wasn’t rushing anyplace, and in fact I was kind of fascinated by all this, feeling time slow down that way.

            In the end the old battle-axe typed in four different but equally useless phone numbers, pausing for a few minutes at one point to complain the number two button wasn’t working, before returning to the very beginning of the conversation to admit in fact no, she’d never had a store discount card. “Now I will put in credit card . . . ” she said. I could hear the people behind me fidgeting and growing impatient.

            “You will put this in a bag for me,” she told the girl. I heard the rustle of plastic as the girl shook open a bag and began stuffing it with Halloween candy. “No. A bigger one,” the old gypsy demanded. And once the girl had switched out the smaller bag for the bigger one, the elderly woman said, “Now you will double bag it.” She’d clearly forgotten all about that waiting car—she had a point to make.

            When the old woman grabbed her bag of candy and headed out to a non-existent car, some twenty minutes after first approaching the counter, the checkout girl stepped over to where I was waiting, paused a moment, and sighed heavily. Yes, I was liking this place more and more.

*        *       *

I was sitting on a sidewalk bench on a chilly Tuesday afternoon. A four year old boy passing with his mother paused next to me and whispered, “You cannot see the black ninja in the dark.”

            “I understand,” I told him. “Thank you.”

            As he scampered off to catch up with his mother, Morgan came out of the store and asked, “What was that all about?”

            “He was a spy,” I told her simply and left it at that.

*        *       *

Some of the best and most memorable meals of my life were served in Styrofoam takeout boxes or oblong red plastic baskets lined with wax paper. Does this make me a bad person?

*        *       *

About two years ago a young Greek couple moved into the basement apartment. I’d lived down there for about four years, it was The Bunker, but after four floods I was happy to move upstairs. Really splendid people, these young Greeks, and some of the best neighbors we’ve ever had, even though the husband, who’s a construction worker or electrician or something, speaks no English beyond the greeting, “Hallo, Jimmy.”

            Last winter, the wife learned she was pregnant with her second daughter. The baby was due in July, so as per custom, I guess, in May a whole bunch of older relatives flew over from Greece and moved in with them. It’s a reasonably small one-bedroom apartment, so we were never sure where they could fit another six adults, but that’s neither here nor there. I guess the idea is that the older relatives keep an eye on things until the baby shows up.

            Well, the baby arrived in July as scheduled and everyone was fine. A month later the relatives slowly, by ones and twos, began returning to Greece. All but two. I Don’t know if they’re his parents or hers, but they’re still down there. Very nice people it seems, but neither speaks a word of English. I’m not sure if they’ve simply moved in permanently or what, but it’s none of my business.

            Since the beginning of the summer I’d gotten into the habit of smoking on the front stoop. So did the grandfather, a burly guy in his sixties. So we ended up spending a lot of time out there together, but since neither of us spoke the other’s language, and I couldn’t see to boot (making even helpful gestures and crude sign language out of the question), we tended to sit there in uncomfortable silence.

            Then his son or son-in-law (whoever he is) taught him “hallo, Jimmy.” So that improved things for a while—I’d say “hello,” he’d say “hallo Jimmy,” and then we’d again sit there in silence, having at least made those steps toward civility.

            Then one day last week I guess he got fed up with the silence, and simply began speaking to me in Greek. After a while, I began responding in English, having no idea what he said.

            So now it’s all quite pleasant and cosmopolitan—whenever we find ourselves on the stoop together, he speaks Greek, I speak English, neither of us knows what the fuck the other is saying, and all is well with the world. Or if not with the world, at least on that South Brooklyn stoop.

*         *       *

Add this to the “Fuckin’ Typical” file.

            At the time of his death in 1985, Orson Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, remained unfinished. It was a project he’d begun in 1970. All the footage was shot, but thanks to myriad issues—economic, political—he never had the chance to edit it together.

            The fifty-year-long saga of how the film was finally completed is documented in detail elsewhere, and it’s an amazing story, but the upshot is The Other Side of the Wind finally opened at the IFC Center in the West Village on November second. It was only a week-long run, but would be screening five times a day. I can say in all earnestness it was the first theatrical release I’d been seriously excited about in a very long time. Being all blind and everything, however, one question remained. Around noon on the day the film opened, I picked up the phone.

            IFC: IFC Center box office, may I help you?

            ME: Hi, yeah. Um, now, this is a shot in the dark. Your website says you’re handicapped accessible, but does that mean the IFC Center offers audio descriptive tracks for the blind?

            IFC: Yes. I mean, we have the headsets.

            ME: That’s exactly what I was talking about. That’s great news! So you have a descriptive track for Other Side of the Wind?

            IFC: Um, I think so. But let me just go double check for you.

            ME: Thanks a bunch.

            {A click, followed by five minutes of Muzak}

            IFC: Hi, thanks for holding.

            ME: Thanks for checking.

            IFC: Well, we have descriptive headsets for all the films we’re screening.

            ME: Really?

            IFC: Except Other Side of the Wind.

            ME: Oh.

*        *       *

A few years ago, when we took a walk around Greenwood Cemetery, Morgan was amazed to note the spire atop the ornate 19th century brownstone entry gate was abuzz with green parrots. Real honest to goodness parrots. In fact the parrots had completely taken over the spire, obscuring it with what appeared to be an elaborate avian apartment complex.

            Well that was unexpected. She’d told me there were parrots in Prospect Park—we’d even seen a couple around my old neighborhood—but had no idea there was such an enclave here, too. So two years later, when she saw that someone was offering a free walking tour of the cemetery focused specifically on the parrot population, we decided to give it a go.

            It was a chilly and blustery Saturday morning in early November. It had rained all night, but the clouds seemed to be moving out. About ten other people had shown up for the tour, a couple of them from as far away as southern Pennsylvania. Our guide that morning, Steve, was an enthusiastic, outdoorsy type in his sixties. After making a few introductory remarks about the cemetery’s history, he pointed everyone toward the spire atop the gateway.

            “And you can see,” he said. “That there are, um, no parrots.” And he was right. Not a one could be seen anywhere. Not only were the parrots missing, it seemed every other species of bird had fled Greenwood that morning, too.

            “Well, okay,” he went on. With no actual parrots on hand to admire, he explained how such a large parrot population (missing as it was) had made it from Argentina to Brooklyn and settled in Greenwood. Suddenly he looked up in the sky and said, “Oh, there’s the problem.” It seems a large hawk was circling overhead, which explained not only the lack of parrots, but the lack of birds of any kind in the vicinity. It was hawk mating season, and during mating season they tend to get really, really mean.

            With no parrots to gawk at, and with all these people gathered around him expecting a forty-five minute tour about parrots, Steve did the only thing he could do—after apologizing again for the lack of parrots, he led us into the cemetery proper and began ad-libbing.

            “Now this over here, see,” he said, pointing at a towering obelisk, “is what they call an obelisk. You don’t see many of those anymore, do you? But instead of a headstone, this person had an obelisk built.”

            Across the path, as we all followed dutifully behind, hanging on his every word, Steve called our attention to a massive tomb in the shape of a pyramid. “And this here is one of the stranger memorials in the whole cemetery. I mean, this looks like Jesus over here, and then on the other side you got what looks like Mary. But she’s holding a baby. Is it baby Jesus? So there are two Jesuses? And then down there there’s a Sphinx. So what does it all mean? I’m not really sure, but it’s a good guess this guy was real interested in Ancient Egypt.”

            He then led us to Leonard Bernstein’s understated memorial, noting the Jewish tradition of placing stones on the grave.

            “And I see there’s a rainbow flag there. Was Leonard Bernstein gay? I dunno. Maybe he came out about that toward the end of his life? I dunno.”

            Then we got a short history of the Battle of Brooklyn and the Erie Canal.

            It was a splendid and wildly entertaining pastiche of factoids half-remembered from a tour given by Greenwood’s actual historian. Steve told us about the view and the fresh air and the solitude and the lack of birds and made up a few things about other memorials as we passed them.

            “You see that symbol there? That means this guy was a Mason. You heard of the Masons? There was a time when if you wanted to be a governor or politician or president, you had to join a Masonic lodge. And that’s what that symbol shows there, that this guy was a Mason.” (He would point out four other Masons as we traipsed along.)

            When it was all over and we were back at the parrotless gate again, Steve admitted he wasn’t a specialist or academic or historian or ornithologist. He was just a guy who’s interested in stuff like parrots. Then he sent us on our way.

            On the way back to the subway, I had to confess I was kind of glad there were no parrots, as what we got instead was a helluva lot funnier.


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