February 23, 2020

Snippets XVIII: Lost in New York


Here’s a good and fine memory of a silly and pointless good time, one that will stick with me forever as, well, a good and fine memory.

            Long before there were hit Broadway musicals about ABBA, The Four Seasons or Carole King, Barry Manilow wrote what he hoped would be a Broadway-bound musical based on his atrocious hit song, “Copacabana.” Well, the world premiere took place in a dinner theater in Atlantic City, so my old friend David E. Williams—a musician I once referred to as Barry Manilow’s evil twin—and I drove down from Philly to catch it. The show, as you might expect, was breathtakingly bad, far worse, even, then we could have imagined. But that doesn’t matter.

            After the press reception following the premiere, the two of us, a little drunk at that point, climbed back into Dave’s car for the hour-long drive home. Along the way, and I don’t recall how this got started, we sang The Dead Kennedy’s first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, in its entirety—but as it would have been performed by Michael Gira of SWANS and World of Skin.

            (Note: If you don’t understand why this was as hilarious as it was, listen to that Dead Kennedys album again, then listen to World of Skin’s cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”)

*       *       *

Here’s another lost opportunity I regret. I got home from work late one summer afternoon to find a message waiting from my friend Bill Kates. It seems Neil Innes, the musician and songwriter who worked with the Monty Python troupe and co-founded both the Bonzo Dog Band and The Rutles was in town with his band to play a few shows. Bill and Neil were friends from way back, Bill was taking him and the band to Coney to ride the Go-Karts, and he wanted to know if I wanted to join them. Yes, of course I wanted to go to Coney to ride the Go-Karts with Neil Innes, but passed because it was warm, I was tired after work, and I’m an idiot.

            (NOTE: The above was written three days before Neil Innes died on December thirtieth. Now I feel like an even bigger idiot.)

*       *       *

I got a note from my niece, McKenzie, who lives in Milwaukee. Her daughter (my grand niece) Harper is in kindergarten. To mark the one hundredth day of school in February, her teacher asked the students to see if they could collect a hundred postcards from friends and relatives, no matter where they lived. Well, McKenzie asked if Morgan and I could send one from New York, and I of course agreed.

            Now, have you ever tried to find a postcard in NYC these days without making the trek to Times Square? They don’t exist anymore, especially this far away from Manhattan. That was the first problem. I called every bookstore, card shop, stationary store, gift shop and any other place that seemed like even a remote possibility, and not a fucking one of them sold postcards of any kind anymore. So I cheated and ordered a pack online.

            The second problem was that the teacher was very specific about the things she wanted everyone to include on the postcards. She wanted a little bit about who was sending the postcard, where they were from, and something about the student they knew. Has this woman ever seen a postcard? There’s not enough room for all that. There’s barely enough room for “please send cash, I’m being held in a CIA black site.” But I had to give it a shot, economize the language as much as possible, and keep in mind this was going to a kindergarten class, which meant cursing was probably not a good idea. In the end here’s what I wrote:

Hello to Mrs. Rasmussen’s class,

      My name is Jim, and I write stories for a living. My wife Morgan works at a medical laboratory. We live in Brooklyn, NY, which is an exciting place full of gangsters and bootleggers. It’s also where our grand niece Harper was crowned “Li’l Miss Coney Island” in 2017.

            For the record, Harper has never been to Brooklyn, let alone Coney Island. More than anything, I was just interested to hear how a kindergarten teacher might explain “bootleggers” to a roomful of five year olds.

*       *       *

When I complain to someone (as has been known to happen) that I once had to sit through not only two Bruce Springsteen concerts, but two Sting concerts over the course of a single week, and they respond with something like, “Wow, that sounds like a dream come true to me!,” I know there is no point in any further discussion with this person.

*       *       *

I’ve run into Bobby, a big, drunken panhandler in his fifties, four or five times over the past year. Drunk as he is, he always remembers my name and remembers all the times we’ve met. Always hits me up for a few bucks, and always gives me an unexpected hug when I come through. He also has a different story every time about why he needs the money, but he’ll be hard pressed to top this latest.

            I was waiting to cross the street when he sidled up next to me.

            “Hey Jim, it’s Bobby,” he slurred. “We met about a year ago in the Rite-Aid.”

            “I remember it well, Bobby,” which I did.

            “Hey, do you suppose you could help me out with a couple bucks? Ten if you got it. I’m tryin’ to buy some Preparation-H. My anus is on Fire!”

*       *       *

This morning I was stopped by three different people at three consecutive street corners, each of them asking the same question: “How do you know when the light’s changed?” It left me thinking I really need to come up with a much snappier answer than the simple, boring, logical truth.

*       *       *

I was putting some more discard books out on the shelves we’d set up in front of the house, just another baby step toward packing and moving, when Ritchie stopped.

            “So…” he said. “You guys moving?”

            Given he was pretty snockered at all hours of the day and night, it was necessary to explain any situation to him every time you saw him, even if you’d already explained it four times in the past, so I did.

            We chatted a bit about what a shame it was, and, in a refrain I’ve been hearing all over the neighborhood lately, how Bay Ridge was becoming Chinatown.

            “How much you pay up there?” referring to our soon-to-be-vacated apartment. I told him, even though I’ve probably told him five times over the past decade.

            “See, my top floor, I ask two hundred less than that. Nice place, too. So you guys sign a lease already?”

            “Three days ago, yeah.”

            “That’s too bad. I love you guys. You’re my favorite people on the block. You should’ve rented my top floor.”

            I felt a kick in the guts. Why did everyone wait until we signed the fucking lease to tell us about places on the fucking block? Ritchie was four doors down, and his top floor would’ve had the same layout as where we are now. I wouldn’t have had to re-learn a fucking thing. I mean, the downside would be living in the same house with Ritchie and his wife, meaning there was no saying what the repairs situation would be like, but that was a small price to pay.

            Hours later I was still kicking myself, until I paused long enough to think two things. First, Ritchie’s health was always a little shaky, and who knows how long it would be before he dropped dead? And when he did, of course, his wife would immediately put the place on the market and we’d be in the same situation. And second, again considering the state of Ritchie’s short (and long) term memory, I wasn’t certain there wasn’t someone living in his top floor apartment already.

*       *       *

It was about twenty or twenty-five years ago that the eyes had faded to the point at which I could no longer see people’s faces. From that point on, those people I knew before I went blind would remain frozen in time. When I dealt with them or thought about them, in my mind they would always look exactly as they did in the mid-Nineties. At this point, friends, family, even my wife will always look at least twenty-five years younger than they actually do now. I’m guessing for most people this would be a blessing. The tricky part comes when I meet new people and have to imagine what they look like, just to have something to hold onto in my imagination when dealing with them. A reference image, however make-believe and incorrect it may be.

            I use a couple of things to build up a stranger’s face. From their voice I can make a few guesses as to height and age and ethnicity. If I touch their arm I can roughly gauge their weight. And that’s about it, really. I have to imagine hair color and style and length, whether there is any facial hair, whether they wear glasses, etc. In most cases I slap the faces of old celebrities on these people just to make my job easier. Pete, the very loud guy down the block, looks just like Richard Hell in his fifties. Pete and Richard Hell have absolutely nothing in common, but it doesn’t matter. Even after he told me he’d shaved his head and stopped wearing glasses, in my mind Pete still looks like Richard Hell in his fifties, complete with hair and glasses. Ritchie the drunk looks like a haggard Pat Buchanan. The Indian kid who used to live on the first floor looked like the star of a Bollywood musical, even after Morgan told me he had an afro and a heavy beard. The gay Indian kid who lived there before him looked like George Takei from Star Trek, even though I knew full well he was Indian, not Japanese. It didn’t matter—I’m just creating placeholders for myself.

            As we walked down the parkway one recent morning, I explained all this to Tony, the sprightly, funny eighty-six year-old Irishman I’ve been running into once or twice a week for the past few years.

            “And in my imagination,” I told him, “you look just like Liam Clancy from the Clancy Brothers.”

            There was a pause, then he started laughing. “Well lad, if you ever get your sight back, I’m afraid you’ll be very disappointed.”

*       *       *

Sometimes it feels like sleep is all I have left.

*       *       *

I spent the afternoon on the phone, making assorted arrangements for the move. Called the electric and gas company to get the accounts in the new place switched over, called the phone company to get the new lines installed, called assorted other places, like Social Security and the bank, just to change the mailing address. Then I called my insurance company’s drug plan provider. It was the last call of the day, and I’d be mighty happy to be done with it all. There hadn’t been any major problems up to that point, it had just taken a long damn time and been exhausting.

            After working my way through the company’s automated menu, I was only on hold for a minute or two before a woman with a heavy Chinese accent answered the phone. She said her name was Gail, and I explained the very simple reason I was calling. Just needed to change the address on my account, as we would be moving, right?

            She typed in the new address. Then she told me she’d just lost the screen and everything she’d typed, so I slowly repeated the new address to her. She lost that one as well, so I gave it to her a third time. Then she put me on hold.

            “I’m so sorry, Mr. James,” she said when she came back on the line. “But your plan doesn’t cover that area.”

            “What?” I asked. “That doesn’t make any sense at all. I’ll be going to the same doctors and the same pharmacy. We’re not moving that far away.”

            She put me on hold again. This time when she returned, she informed me that my account was being terminated at the end of the month.

            “What? Why? I’ve heard nothing about this.”

            She apologized, but confirmed my coverage would end in three weeks, and that’s why it wouldn’t cover me at the new address.

            This of course sent the call veering off on an unexpected detour. I just wanted to change my fucking mailing address, is all, and now my coverage was being terminated? Was anyone planning on telling me this?

            Over the next half hour, she tried and failed to offer me any logical explanation for any of the things she’d told me up to that point. Finally exasperated, I asked if we could set that aside for a moment and at least get back to the address change, which itself had never been fully resolved.

            She had me repeat the new address in Bensonhurst two more times. Then there was another uncomfortable pause.

            “I’m sorry, Mr. James, but the system is telling me this is not a valid address.”

            I thought I knew what the problem might be. The building we were moving into was on the corner of a commercial avenue and a semi-residential street. Although our entrance (and mailboxes) were on Sixty-first street, the building’s official address was around the corner on the avenue.

            “Here,” I said. “Try this.” I gave her the avenue address, adding that our mailing address was different.

            She typed that in, and there was another one of those pauses I was coming to recognize.

            “No,” she said. “This is not a valid address either.”

            For a second I feared the situation we’d gotten ourselves into was even worse than I imagined. Maybe the building didn’t even exist. Then I thought better, remembering I’d had no such troubles with the gas or phone company, both of whom had the address in their systems.

            “None of this makes any sense,” I told her. “It might be better if I just cut my losses here and try calling back another time.” She agreed with me, and may well have been a little relieved. I’d been getting a little sharper than I usually like when dealing with wage slaves. I hung up the phone.

            The next day I tried again, certain I’d end up talking to the same woman. I didn’t. Starting anew, as if none of the previous day’s hour-long debacle had taken place, over the course of five minutes I was able to get the address changed with not a peep about terminated accounts or invalid addresses. For some reason that left me even more uneasy.


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