SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 15, 2019

Snippets XVII: The Final Sacrifice

 

A few weeks ago I ran a column entitled “And Then everything Went to Hell. Again.” which was a collection of bullet points detailing everything that had gone horribly wrong over the month of October. I was kind of hoping that would be that, that everything would calm down so we could again focus on stupid crap. I was sorely mistaken, so if I may offer a brief addendum:

            * Two days after we took Oleg’s plastic collar off and introduced him to the general population, we brought him back to the vet for a follow-up visit. His sutures had healed up fine, he was in good shape, but oh, he had ear mites, which are extremely contagious. The vet blamed it on one of our other cats, but that wasn’t feasible. We suspected he’d actually contracted them while in the hospital to get fixed

            * This meant we again had to disinfect everything Oleg had come in contact with, and wait for the other three to show symptoms of ear mites as well.

            * Shortly after settling on an apartment in Bensonhurst (see below), I came across a listing for another place about a block away from where we are now. It was expensive, but perfect. It had everything we were looking for, and was apparently being rented out by the guy who owned the house, which meant ducking the broker’s fee. So I got in touch with the owner of this new place, and we pushed our scheduled Bensonhurst lease signing back a week until we had a chance to look at an apartment that seemed ideal.

            The more I spoke with the owner, however, the stranger and creepier things became. In the end we weren’t even sure it was his place to rent. And if he did indeed live there with his wife and kids as he claimed, we decided we didn’t care to live with them, even if the apartment itself was ideal. So we skipped it.

            * We brought Bert into the vet for a second follow up after his cancer surgery. His thyroid was still out of control, so we had to increase the dosage of his medication. Oh, and since he’d started puking daily again we had to add another pill. Some biopsy results were inconclusive, so they had to run still more tests which came to over $1,000.

            * Bert’s thyroid condition left him demanding to be fed every two hours. This went on all day and all night, meaning I had to get up every two hours to take fifteen or twenty minutes to feed him in the middle of the night. Being awakened to do this every two hours for weeks and now months on end was starting to take a real toll. Sleep deprivation’s a bitch.

            * A week later we brought Daisy in for a follow up after her teeth cleaning, and the tech who examined her found what might be a tumor on her belly.

            *Bert kept puking even with the new medicine, and had another bad herpes flare-up which left him sneezing blood.

            * As soon as overnight temperatures dropped into the thirties again, the furnace died. We went without heat for three days, and had to sleep in our clothes.

            * When Bert’s latest biopsy results came back inconclusive again, a veterinary oncologist decided we needed to get yet another biopsy ($600). We also had to start giving him two more pills. And oh, yes, even though they weren’t sure what they were dealing with, they wanted us to start bringing him to a place in downtown Brooklyn once a week for chemotherapy. The only available days for this were, of course, days Morgan worked.

            * I was starting to have serious doubts about the vet. Every time we brought a cat in for the easiest and simplest thing, she found something horrendous that cost thousands of dollars and required multiple follow up visits.

            * I then had to try and explain to the vet why we thought chemo was a bad idea. She wouldn’t come to the phone to speak with me, instead passing along terse messages through her receptionist. Then she insisted we come in for a consultation at eight-thirty the following Tuesday morning. It felt like we’d just been summoned to the principal’s office.

            * The bubbleheads on the first floor moved out the Thursday before Thanksgiving, and the kids in the basement two days later. That left us alone in the building, waiting for the furnace to crap out again.

            * Amid all this, we also had to get serious about packing and moving.

            * As Bert’s condition, this supposed run-of-the-mill herpes flare-up (his second in a month) continued to deteriorate, it became clear he’d developed a secondary infection. Yet despite three calls to the vet to plead with her to prescribe some simple antibiotics, we were given the brush each time, told that it would all just pass. It didn’t.

            * On December second I received an email from the landlord asking if we’d moved yet, and if we’d left the keys behind. (“Um, nope.”)

            * We put off the consultation with the vet for a week, and when we finally went in with both Bert and Oleg in tow, we came away with a clean bill of health for Oleg, a bottle of antibiotics for Bert, and news that Daisy’s threatened tumor was just another cyst, which was all very good news. We also had an appointment to meet this vet oncologist in two weeks to talk about Bert’s chemotherapy, which would begin as soon as his respiratory infection cleared up.

            * That afternoon the real estate agent wrote to tell us there would be two more open houses that weekend.

            * Then the toilet paper holder broke.

            * The real estate agent confirmed that the supposed sale of the house announced in October had fallen through, but we were still being evicted. The only visitors to the next open house were five or six members of yet another—surprise!—Chinese family. Not only were they congenitally incapable of closing doors behind them (forcing me to put Oleg in a carrier and carry Bert to ensure neither darted outside), they wouldn’t fucking leave. For twenty minutes they tromped around the apartment, opening closets and drawers and never closing doors. And all the while the father was loudly trying to decide where he’d put three more bathrooms on that floor. I’m not kidding about that. I fucking hated those people.

            * Fuck me.

***

Do coffee carts in NYC still sell coffee in those standard blue, white and gold paper cups with the faux-Greek writing on them? I loved those damned paper cups. They were such an ubiquitous and unheralded bit of daily street level New York culture. Or maybe I should take another step back and ask, are there still coffee carts out there? We got none by me. No coffee carts, no hot dog carts, no news stands anymore. In fact the only two food trucks we have here are two Halal trucks across from one another at 86th Street and 5th Avenue. Somehow they don’t count.

***

I was on my way to the subway after some sort of full-body radioactive scan.

            “Hello!,” a woman chirped brightly as she passed heading in the same direction. That was unusual for Park Slope. From the position of her voice I guessed she was a very small woman, though I couldn’t make a guess as to her age.

            “Hello,” I replied, thinking that was that. But once she was about six feet in front of me, she spoke again in what might have been an exaggerated Southern accent. The following short monologue was recited as she continued walking six feet in front of me, never once looking back to see if I was listening.

            “I have a friend who’s blind. He’s been blind forty-two years, but he gets around this neighborhood faster than I do. He’s a musician. He teaches music. He’s the smartest person I know. He keeps everything in his head. I’ll ask him where we are and boom! He can tell me. He knows how many steps it takes to get across the street before the light changes. He could see once. He’s the smartest person I know. He’s always looking for me because I’m homeless. He plays the harmonica.”

            There was a long pause as we continued down the block, this strange homeless woman still six feet ahead of me. As we approached the corner, she finally said, “Yup, the smartest man I know.” Then she went on her way.

***

As my dad read more of my writing and got a better sense of my general attitude toward the world, he always had one bit of advice to offer whenever he learned I was going someplace for a meeting or to give a reading or just to get together with a couple of friends:

            “Well,” he’d say earnestly, “just don’t stab anyone.”

***

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Then drink the lemonade, let your body turn it into urine, and piss all over life, that fucker.

***

I was wondering why the Egyptian at the bodega across the street seemed a little nervous when he slipped me the packs of illegal bootleg smokes. Then I remembered it was the day of the NYC marathon. Since the marathon passes a block from my apartment, this meant I was cut off from pretty much everything—grocery store, drug store—so the bodega would represent the extent of my outside travels that day. It also meant a couple of cops would be hanging around the store all day, drinking coffee, bullshitting, and watching car after car after car zip through the stop sign at the corner without pausing.

            As I was leaving the bodega, bootleg smokes tucked safely in my pocket, one of them called to another across the street.

            “Yeah, I’ll get you a car that turns into a boat that turns into a tank that turns into a helicopter.”

            “Yeah,” the other one called back. “This guy always looks like he’s suckin’ on a lemon. I don’t like him. They shouldda stopped the whole fuckin’ thing after Pierce Brosnan.”

***

I was on my way to the bank on a Saturday morning when an elderly woman fell into step with me, having decided to tag along. I couldn’t place her accent, but was guessing she was Middle Eastern, or maybe a Gypsy. I also couldn’t very well tell her to fuck off and leave me alone, because if she was the latter, this might well result in a curse, and I was having trouble enough as it was.

            “They need to do something about these sidewalks,” she said after the tip of my cane caught a crack in the cement. “It’s dangerous, especially for the disabled . . . Don’t you agree?”

            “Well, sure,” I told her. “But things are much better here than they are in other neighborhoods.”

            “Oh yes, I love it here,” she said, speaking quietly and turning her head away. Between that and the accent, I had to strain to understand her. “In Bay Ridge. People are very nice. Most of them.” Then she paused. “Can I ask you a question?”

            I never know where that will lead, but presumed it would be something from the litany of standard blindo queries. “Sure,” I said.

            “You are American?”

            “Um, yes?”

            “A strong American?”

            I got a bad whiff. Every stranger who stops me wanting to chat has some kind of agenda in mind. “Well,” I offered, “I was born here.”

            “Yes, a strong American. I am American too, but I’m from Scandinavia. I’m Swedish.”

            She really didn’t sound Swedish, but what do I know. “My family came from Germany and Norway,” I offered.

            “And I am from Sweden. Do you know what I do not like? Here in Bay Ridge, all these other people moving in and taking it over, pushing the rest of us out.”

            Not really wanting to encourage her, but curious to see how hardcore she was going to get, I offered, “That’s sort of what’s happening to my wife and me. The landlord just sold the building, so now we have to find a new place.”

            “It’s happening everywhere around here.”

            “All up and down our block it’s happening.”

            “Who is buying it? The houses on your street? The real estate developers?”

            I had another choice to make at that point, and decided to push it. “Well, no, it’s . . . the Chinese.”

            She stopped suddenly, and I heard the unmistakable sound of a fist smacking an open palm. “That’s just it! The Chinese. What do they want with us? The Chinese and the Hispanics. The Hispanics go out at night and look for things that are broken. Fences, gates, doors. Then they knock on the door and ask if they can fix it. Or they come back the next day and leave a paper with phone number. That is how they get their work. That is how they move in and take over. The Chinese are the same. This is not how I was raised. In Sweden we were taught different.”

            I was even more curious now to see where she was taking this. Was she going to tell me with no small pride that the Swedes were a lazy and slothful people, arguing for the virtue of being a leech on the State?

            “We were taught to be kind to people, to make people happy. These Chinese and Hispanics were not taught this. And now they take over. Why don’t strong Americans stop them? Why do they let it happen?”

            It was one of the stranger and more counterintuitive jingoistic arguments I’d ever encountered, and I had no real answer for her apart from economics. “Well, I guess the Chinese can afford to pay prices people around here can’t afford, and the home owners are happy to take it from whoever can pay the most.”

            “No!” She barked. “It is the children who want the money and don’t care where they get it. They force their parents out of their homes so they can get money. They are the ones who take it from these people.”

            That certainly added another twist to her complex and baffling argument about shifting Bay Ridge demographics. It was also apparently as far as she cared to push it, leaving me wondering what her own story was. After that she began describing her church to me. “It is very beautiful. It has a red door. It’s very small. A chapel, but in the Gothic style, with Gothic crosses on the roof. One of them is in a circle.”

***

Renting an apartment in NYC ain’t what it used to be. Time was, you saw a promising listing in the paper, made an appointment, looked at a place, and if it suited you, you handed the landlord the first month’s rent, a security deposit, and he handed you the keys in return. That was it. Now, Morgan and I learned, if you visited a place and it suited you, you had to go home, fill out a series of long and complex forms asking for all sorts of financial and employment details, attach a bunch of files including several years worth of income tax returns, pay stubs, bank statements, photo IDs and letters of recommendation, then send it all in to the realtor, who passed it along to the landlord. This was used for a thorough background check. Should you clear that, then there was the interview with the landlord, and only after he decided he liked the cut of your jib were you in.

            The morning after Morgan and I filled out the insane forms and sent them in (with a seventy-five dollar fee for each), the realtor sent a note saying the landlord wanted to see even more tax returns.

            So we went through all this in mid-November, and apparently passed the test. The realtor called on a Friday afternoon to tell us we were in. Or would be, after coming in the next Monday for the official lease signing.

            “Um,” I asked. “Is there still going to be an interview?”

            “Not really,” she said. “It’ll just be an informal chat about the building after you sign the lease.”

            That, to be honest, was a relief. I’m generally expected to play Straight Citizen during interviews like that, and I don’t do the straight citizen routine very well, which is why I don’t do very well at interviews. That we didn’t have to go through an interview made it clear that Morgan’s income told them all they needed to know. Lord knows my income wasn’t going to paint a picture of fiscal responsibility. The realtor then detailed all the checks we would need to bring on Monday, adding a few mysterious fees neither Morgan nor I had ever heard of before.

            The place came with a lot of trade-offs. It was smaller than what we have now, meaning we’d have to purge an awful lot before packing, but it was cheap. We’d lose the view of the lush backyard, but we’d get a terrace. The space was cut up kind of strangely, but at least the furnace seemed to work. We’d lose the convenience of a laundry room in the basement, but there was a super on the premises. We’d lose the suburban camaraderie of Mister Rogers neighborhood here in Bay Ridge in exchange for a commercial strip, but it was closer to Morgan’s Job and the subway. Instead of a couple of incredibly friendly and helpful kids downstairs, we’d be living above a sporting goods store and had no idea who our neighbors were. But all the standard conveniences were there—grocery store, bodegas, drug store, post office, karaoke bar—all within a few blocks, and like I said it was cheap. Snagging a place meant we could scratch one huge fucking pain in the ass off the list of all the other fucking pains in the ass we had to worry about in the coming months. So why did the good news that we got the place fill us with such dread?

 

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