SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 31, 2019

Snippets XII: The Heretic

 

I was crossing Fourth Avenue on my way to the store this morning when a car ran over the pinkie finger on my right hand.

            Yes, this actually occurred. I was going to tell the whole stupid story, but decided it would be more fun to leave it at that and let you use your imaginations.

*       *       *

Beginning seconds after the results of the 2016 presidential election were finalized, all those pundits and journalists and liberals and activists and regular citizens, struggling to come up with an explanation for how such a thing could have happened, focused their attentions outside the U.S. The argument, and I’m not denying it, is that Russian and quite possibly Chinese, Korean and Iranian trolls posted tens of thousands of fraudulent stories online, targeting specific voter demographics. Questions of collusion aside, the general consensus is that Vladimir Putin, for whatever reason, wanted Donald Trump to win the election, and so steered voters in his direction by clouding their minds with patently false accusatory stories about his opponents.

            Okay, fine. Accepted. But what most of these pundits and journalists seem hesitant to do is take it all one small level deeper. If you accept the above, what you’re saying in essence is that roughly half the American public was perfectly willing to believe (and continues to believe), say, that Hillary Clinton and George Soros run a Satanic child sex trafficking ring, to cite just one popular story. If you accept that, what you’re saying in a nutshell, is that roughly half the people in the country lack even the most basic critical reading and thinking skills. So why not set the hunt for diabolical foreign conspirators aside for a moment, and admit to a much simpler unavoidable conclusion? Donald Trump was elected because most Americans are racist lunkheads. It had precious little to do with media manipulation—most of us are just plain bone stupid.

*       *       *

Of all the myriad questions I asked my thirteen-year-old self, the one that sticks with me four decades later remains, “Why is this large Hawaiian woman giving me sex music?”

*       *       *

Around noon this afternoon, one of the neighborhood’s many Hell’s Angels wannabes came roaring down the street on his souped-up Yamaha, engine revving at deafening volumes. This happens a lot around here, and I always imagine the assholes riding them are all wearing headphones blasting Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild.”

            When he reached the corner he hit the brakes, came to a stop, and quite distinctly over the rumbling bike engine, I heard the female voice of a GPS system calmly announce, “Turn right on Sixth Avenue.”

            Well, so much for rebel fantasies.

*       *       *

Remember when the library itself used to be the Internet? You could call the reference desk from the comfort of your home with any question at all—“How do mollusks reproduce?,” say, or “Who was the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?”—and whoever answered the phone would jot it down and call you back in half an hour with the answer. Not quite as lightning fast as Google, maybe, but far more entertaining, and your questions weren’t immediately stashed away in half a dozen massive corporate and federal data banks.

*       *       *

I walked into the bodega on Sunday morning and found my way to the counter. The ornery old Egyptian was screaming into his phone as usual. I pulled out my wallet and slipped out a bill. It didn’t matter if he was on the phone or not—he knew what I wanted, and so we no longer needed to exchange any words. When he caught sight of me, I heard him open and close a few drawers, then go to the back room and rummage about a bit, screaming into the phone all the while.

            The call ended while he was still fumbling around the back room, and he returned to the front. “Hey boss, how are you today?” He asked.

            “I’m just fine. And you?”

            “Good,” he said. “No cigarettes. Be right back.”

            With that, he left the store, and left me standing at the counter, bill in hand, wondering if I should wait, or leave, or what. I decided to wait, mostly out of curiosity. I’d stopped in there before when he was out of smokes, and he always told me to come back later in the day. I had no idea why he’d ask me to wait now.

            I heard him step around the corner of the building to where the dumpster sat. The dumpster’s metal lid was raised, then dropped again with a clang. That was followed by some rustling. Two minutes later he stomped back into the store carrying what sounded like two large garbage bags. He took them to the back room, where again I heard some brief rustling.

            A minute later he reappeared behind the counter and slapped down two packs of smokes before slipping the bill out of my hand. I thanked him, pocketed the smokes, and left, having no fucking idea what had just transpired.

*       *       *

Sometimes I lose my bearings, and other times I lose my marbles. It’s all a question of diameter and material.

*       *       *

There are life stories from strangers, and there are life stories from strangers. Over the course of a standard half-hour haircut, here’s what I learned about the new kid who’d just started working at my regular barber shop.

1. He’d been in a solid relationship with his girlfriend, but he blew it. He’s still trying to get back together with her, though.

2. He lives in Harlem, likes dogs, doesn’t like cats because they scratch him, and likes Bay Ridge, which is far less sketchy than Harlem, even though Harlem is getting better.

3. He’s originally from Mexico, and is part of the DACA program.

4. He wanted to go to college, but after the current president was elected, he was afraid if he entered college and they decided to deport everyone, he’d end up in Mexico a complete stranger with no skills. So he decided he had to learn a trade fast, something that would be useful both here and in Mexico should the worst happen, and decided to go to barber school.

5. He really wants to get a government job as a food inspector.

6. He blew it with his girlfriend when he cheated on her with her best friend, who then turned around and told the girlfriend. But he still sends his ex flowers at work on their anniversary, even though she’s told him to stop doing this.

7. He used to work in a warehouse, but he likes cutting hair better. He can make as much money as he wants, and he’s free to sit down and watch movies when things are slow.

8. He was not aware The Lone Ranger existed as a character before the Johnny Depp remake from a few years back

9. His sister, who was also in the DACA program, was able to graduate from college shortly after the election, so she’s okay. She lives in upstate New York and tells him he should open his own barber shop up there. But to do that he’d need to build up a clientele who would follow him. It’s real nice up there. A real small town, and his sister took him hiking, which he’d never done before.

10. He moved to the States when he was four, arriving on Halloween, 1995, in the middle of a huge snowstorm. He’s lived in Harlem ever since.

11. He never kissed his ex girlfriend’s best friend or held her hand or anything—they just talked on the phone a lot and traded text messages.

12. Ideally he would like to be a food inspector during the week, and cut hair on weekends.

13. He used to have seven or eight girlfriends at once, but that got too tiring.

14. On his birthday in April he wants to color his hair, “y’know, the way all the kids do today,” and after much consideration decided he wanted to dye it the same color as mine.

15. He was once the manager of a food packaging outfit. Twelve-hour days were standard, but he once worked thirty-six hours straight because they had a big and very complicated order. No, it was thirty-five hours.

16. He and another guy work at the barber shop during the week. One takes Monday and Wednesday, the other Tuesday and Thursday, so they can trade days if something comes up. Realizing Valentine’s Day was coming up and the other guy had a girlfriend, he offered to switch days so the other guy would be free to do something, go to dinner or whatever. He would like to have a girlfriend, but would like to get back together with his ex. The next week he had to go to a program on Thursday, so the other guy was going to work for him then, so it’s a good arrangement.

17. He’s really hoping for the best with DACA.

            All the while I was learning these things about my new barber, the Lone Ranger remake with Johnny Depp as Tonto was playing on the television. The film, which cost nearly half a billion dollars to make, went on to become a legendary box-office bomb. To be honest, I didn’t think it was so bad.

*       *       *

I was on my way home with a twelve pack a little after nine Saturday morning. I’d turned the final corner, but was ranting about something in my head so it took awhile to notice I’d walked past my building. Once recognizing this, I stopped, turned, and began feeling my way back along the wrought-iron gates. I’d know my own gate once I felt it. Then I heard a growl and a loud roar a few yards behind me.

            I assumed it was Frankie, the big autistic guy who lives across the street. He spends most days standing on his front stoop making sounds like that. How he ended up on this side of the street was a mystery, but whatever. Startled as I was by the noise, I knew he was harmless. Still, I began tapping a little faster. Even if he meant no harm, he had a habit of slamming into people. Or at least me. That gate couldn’t be too far away, and once I ducked in there I’d be safe. Then whoever had growled behind me called me by name.

            Well, Frankie doesn’t know my name. Not many people on this block do, which is a relief. One of the few who does—and the thick slur in his voice gave it away—was Richard.

            I paused and half-turned, still holding onto the gate next to me. “Hey Rich,” I said.

            The heavy-set drunk ambled up to me. “You, ah, you need any help?”

            “Naah, thanks. Just overshot the building. I was distracted.”

            “Yeah, I’m distracted all the time,” he admitted slowly. “See? . . . I’m a drinker.”

            Well, that was an understatement. Ten years on that block and I’d never seen him sober. I liked Richard.

            “So how’s your wife doing?” He asked.

            “Oh, she’s just fine.”

            “What’s her name again?” We must have told him eight times by now, but that’s okay. That he could remember my name was nothing short of miraculous.

            “It’s Morgan.”

            “Morgan,” he repeated, as if trying to cement it somewhere in his head. “Jim and Morgan . . . Jim and Morgan . . . Jim Morgan . . . See? I’m such a loser, I look at everything in terms of alcohol. See . . . In bars? In bars sometimes they have this drink called a Jim Morgan.” He paused a long time, considering what he’d just said. “Or at least they should.”

 

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