August 25, 2019

Snippets 15: The Voyage Home


This morning I passed a woman on her cell phone while on my way home from running one stupid errand or another. I only caught a single line of the one-sided conversation:

            “Yesterday I ate a whole bunch of bananas.”

            Okay, upon hearing that I immediately thought two things.

            First, I was awfully glad I wasn’t the person on the other end of the conversation.

            And second, I don’t need to know anything else about this woman.

*       *       *

“What the hell is this? Everybody’s movin’ outta Brooklyn.”

            I was on the stoop having a smoke, and the man who stopped by the gate had obviously just noted the “For Sale” sign’ in front of the house next door.

            “Tell me about it,” I told the man who, at first anyway, I assumed was my neighbor Ritchie. The sign had been out there for months, but I wouldn’t have been too surprised if the old souse had only noticed it now. His observation was undeniable. There were an awful lot of houses for sale, not just on the block but all over the neighborhood.

            “Where did Helen live?” He asked out of the blue. As luck would have it, another neighbor had told me about Helen—a woman I never met—just the day before.

            “She was three or four houses down,” I said, pointing. It was kind of a strange question for Ritchie to ask, considering Helen had lived right next door to him for years. But I guess it was the kind of question you might expect from someone who was that blotto all the time.

            “Then she died, right?” He went on. “And her daughter took the place over.”

            “Right. Then she sold it,” I said.

            “People say Brooklyn’s changing, but I say everywhere it’s changing, and you gotta go with the flow, right? I live on Seventy-first street. Been there since 1970. Spent my whole life in Brooklyn, and I ain’t goin’ anywhere. Well, have a good weekend, buddy”

            Then he walked away, and I realized it wasn’t Ritchie at all. I had no idea who this guy was.

*       *       *

A week or two back, an attorney friend recommended I read a recent book entitled National Security Cinema, simply to see if I thought it was as silly and misguided as he did. “The authors are either in on the joke,” he said, “or dirt stupid.”

            The book, co-written by an academic and a researcher into governmental shenanigans, was a righteous, morally outraged and chest thumping affair, the two of them having apparently just realized that the U.S. government, particularly the Pentagon and the CIA, had meddled in hundreds of Hollywood films, in many instances demanding changes and script rewrites long before the first scene was shot. Although the practice could be traced back to the earliest days of American filmmaking, and was common knowledge to anyone who knows his or her film history, these guys were under the impression government meddling in Hollywood only really got underway in the 1980s. Filmmakers working on things like Top Gun and A Clear and Present Danger would approach the Department of Defense or the CIA asking to use equipment, locations or personnel, or just to have a little technical advice, and before you know it the feds were demanding changes to the scripts. Can you believe that shit? I mean, where the hell were we—China?

            Yes, well. As I read the book three basic ideas kept returning:

1.    Is anyone really that morally outraged to learn that the CIA had a hand in the development of the scripts for Tom Clancy movies?

2.    If you’re making films as a commercial enterprise within a capitalist framework and you want Cheez-Whiz to help sponsor your production, you will likely be expected to present Cheez-Whiz in a positive light.

3.    If you don’t want the feds mucking around with your script, then DON’T FUCKING ASK THEM FOR HELP!

*       *       *

I overheard the following from a woman on her cellphone on a Brooklyn sidewalk around three on a Sunday afternoon:

            “Yeah, I been good. Real good. Ain’t had anything all weekend. No alcohol, no wine, nothing. Just those two shots.”

*       *       *

Against my will, I was shipped off to summer camp in northern Wisconsin for two weeks when I was thirteen. Worse still, it was a religious summer camp. It was an ugly rite of passage mandated by the Lutheran church which hadn’t yet excommunicated me. That would come a few months later.

            I had no interest in camp, in the outdoors, or in any of the other little rats I’d be forced to interact with for two weeks out of my goddamn summer vacation. But I had a plan. It came to me shortly after arriving at the camp.

            Once we were unloaded off the bus at Camp Luther, we were all given name tag stickers we were required to wear for the first few days. The thinking was, as it always is, that camp would be that much more fun if we knew everybody’s name. But instead of writing “Jim Knipfel” on the stupid sticker before slapping it on my shirt, I wrote “Hi! I’m the grandson of Don Carmine Galante!”

            Now, Galante was the reputed boss of the Bonanno crime family who’d been gunned down by three ski-masked assassins after finishing lunch at Joe and Mary’s Italian-American restaurant in Brooklyn just a few days earlier. It had been all over the news, complete with bloody pictures of his bullet-riddled body, cigar still clutched in his teeth. Claiming to be his grandson, I thought, was a pretty smooth way of keeping the little snot-nosed ruffians at a distance. Who would want to fuck with a mob boss’s grandson, right? Especially a mob boss who’d just been whacked?

            Yeah, it was a pretty clever ploy, I thought. But I forgot to consider one thing.

            It didn’t take long to realize none of these little cretins kept up with the news, and neither did the camp counselors. Nobody—and I mean NOBODY—at the camp had ever heard of Carmine Galante.

            So the plan was another complete failure, and camp was even more miserable and creepy than I imagined.

*       *       *

Who decided, and when, that breakfast foods were to be of a certain nature distinct from other meals, and should not be eaten at any other time of day? And how did Mr. Kellogg con everyone into believing these said foods should often come in flake form?

*       *       *

Things You Don’t Want to Hear Your Barber Say After you’re Already in the Chair:

            “Yeah, I can’t talk real good today. Had three wisdom teeth pulled yesterday, and I’m on all sorts of pain killers.”

*       *       *

I don’t know what put this idea in my head. When I was very young and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” was all over the radio, I was convinced it was being performed by the cast of Star Trek. I saw it clearly in my head whenever I heard the song. They were wearing their uniforms and everything. They even had choreographed dance moves like The Platters or The O’Jays. Sometimes when I heard it, Scotty was singing the lead, at other times it was Chekov. I never shared this idea with anyone, assuming it to be a simple given.

*       *       *

Another memorable bit of overheard conversation from a woman passing in front of the house:

            “Does it mean I’m getting an education if my eyebrows are sweating?”

*       *       *

“Hey Jim, how are ya?” Caroline croaked in her familiar smoke-scarred voice, sounding defeated as ever.

            “I’m doing fine, Caroline. How ‘bout yourself?” I’d been dragging some trash out when she caught me by the front gate. Caroline lived around the corner. She was an ornery, bitter, racist old Brooklynite who’d lived here her entire life, hated Muslims, the Chinese, and liberals. But she was always nice to me, more or less. Still, I was relieved whenever we passed on the sidewalk, she said hello, then kept walking. Today she’d decided to stop.

            “Ya know my tenant Gail?” She began, launching into something before I could say a word or make an excuse to duck back inside. “I’m tellin’ ya, she is a bitch. A . . . bitch. An’ she’s livin’ there for peanuts. Doesn’t hardly pay any rent at all. Then she’s got this young boyfriend of hers livin’ there too. Talks all the time. Stands in front of my house and talks. My house! I was comin’ home the other day and saw him out there. Talking. And the other Caroline—she’s just two doors down—she sees this an’ says, ‘Lemme walk you to your door.’ So we got past him and she went home. But if that bitch thinks she’s gonna keep livin’ there without payin’ her fair share, she’s got another thing comin’. I’ll make sure of that. I’ll toss her out on her ass. Well, have a good day, Jim.”

            With that, she continued on her way to the store. I had no idea who Gail was.

*       *       *

Commercial Voice Overs I Want to Hear:

            Life Cereal

            “I see your having a bowl of Life. Isn’t that ironic?”

*       *       *

I was waiting to cross Fifth Avenue when I heard a small voice from down near my knees.

            “Hello,” a child of about five or six said.

            “Hello,” I responded.

            “I think your shirt is awesome.”

            “Well thank you. It is pretty awesome, isn’t it?” I had no idea what t-shirt I’d thrown on that morning, but it didn’t much matter.

            “It’s awesome! What’s your name?”

            “My name’s Jim,” I said. “What’s yours?” Normally I have very little patience for children, but the kid clearly had good taste.

            “My name’s Liam.”

            I bent down using the cane for support and held out my hand. “Well, Liam, it’s good to meet you. You’ve obviously got discerning taste.” I shook the tiny hand and stood again.

            “And this is my dad,” he said.

            “Hello,” I said in the general direction of the father.

            “Hi,” replied the man curtly, clearly uncomfortable with the entire encounter. I don’t know if he was nervous about his young son interacting with a cripple, or with a creepy old man in some kind of band t-shirt. Well, whatever.

            The light changed and we all began crossing the avenue.

            “Bye!” Liam shouted.

            “Good bye!” I replied.

            “Come along, Liam. Hurry up,” his father snapped. They pulled ahead of me a few yards.

            When I was still crossing the street, Liam shouted, “Why are you following us?”

            “I’m not following you. I’m going home, and we’re headed in the same direction.”

            “Come along, Liam,” the father said.

            “Stop following us!” Liam shrieked at me.

            I do wonder why so many of my encounters with children seem to take a weird and hostile turn at the end.

*       *       *

It only occurred to me this morning, during a sweaty stroll home from the post office on a morning that was far too sweltering, even in the middle of a New York summer. With even the tiniest bit of interference—physical, auditory or psychic—I found myself muttering non-sequiturs aloud. I don’t think I’d ever done that before. At least not that I noticed and not to that extent. Then it hit me: My God, I really am turning into Mr. Magoo!

*       *       *

So I was invited to a birthday party the neighbors were having for their daughter, who was turning one. I don’t think I’ve been invited to a kid’s birthday party since I was a kid. The first thought that crossed my mind was “Oh, Christ, that means I have to buy a present.” Then I remembered that every present I’ve tried to buy for a kid over the past forty years has either ended up terrifying the kid, or terrifying the parents.

            So fuck it, I’m bringing beer.

*       *       *

I was just stung by a bee for only the second time in twenty years. Weird thing is, they were both beer-related. That last time, I was in a Park Slope grocery store picking up a sixer. I didn’t notice there was a bee resting on the handle, and when I went to grab it the bee stung me between my thumb and forefinger. My hand swelled up, making it impossible to type for the next two weeks. This time I was just leaving the drug store where I’d picked up a case (still mysteriously on sale after a year). As I was crossing the parkway, I felt something crawling around the back of my neck. When I reached back to find out what it was, I felt a buzz between my fingers a moment before it stung me on the tip of my middle finger. This time at least my hand didn’t swell up. For a second there, though, I couldn’t help but recall the opening scene from the made-for-TV movie Killer Bees, in which a fat, sweaty guy slaps and squashes a bee who’d just stung him on the neck. A moment later an entire swarm descends on the fat guy, killing him.

            Well, that didn’t happen here, either. But still.

            I realize that over the past several years the world’s bee population has been decimated by pesticides, which doesn’t bode well for the future of plant pollination and mankind in general, but you know what? Fuck bees.

*       *       *

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about the one question I’ve been asked more than any other ever since I was a kid, namely “Can’t you do anything right?”

            Along those same lines it occurred to me this morning there’s been a simple declaration I’ve been told perhaps more often than most people, I’m guessing, generally hear.

            My dad said it to me at the end of a debate over whether or not I was going to register for a draft which had just been reinstated. My dad, for the record, was an Air Force veteran, and I was an anarchist.

            A few years later my mom said it to me when I was considering moving into an apartment in a poor and primarily black neighborhood in West Philly.

            Some time later my agent said it to me when I mentioned I wanted to submit a piece to The New Yorker.

            The very simple and direct four-word declaration was, “They Don’t Want You.”

            And you know what? They were all correct. Maybe it should tell me something, but it never has.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.