Friday, December 28, 2007

While Out and About

People Are Talking

You never can tell where a discussion on politics will ensue. New York Times Op-Ed page writers have been known to have these discussions on outsourcing and changing American mores just...suddenly break out in the back seats of the opinion-stuffed taxicabs and TGIF's of their minds.

And in the last three days of holiday crazy, it appears I've run into several of the people who scuttle behind the Friedmans and Brookses of this world with trenchant thoughts on the world fairly oozing from their pores like so much sweat.

Encounter #1: Corner of Remsen and East New York Avenues in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. December 26th—6:30 p.m.

I found myself here picking up a few things the day after Christmas while on the way to my mom's house for some extra family commiserating and all that involves. Walking out the door with an armful of paper towels and aluminum foil, and “tupperware”-ish leftover-savers, I slowed down as I spied a elderly man behind me using a walker. He was nearing the door slowly, with a small prescription bag, so I waited for him while holding the door for him to exit. He took a while moving forward—three furtive, baby steps for each walker slide, and as he exerted himself a bit hurrying, I told him to just take his time—“I'll wait.”

He finally got to the door and shuffled through as I walked down the ramp to the sidewalk.

“Thank you, son. Thank you for waiting. I really appreciate it.”

“Not a problem.”, I said. “Happy New Year to you.”

“Oh, it should be.”, he replied. “'Round this time that Goddamned Bush'll be outta there. We can fix things...'stead a' blowin' things up.”

And with that, I stopped, I looked back at the old man. He looked to be in his mid-seventies at the least. A bag full of medicines, and extreme difficulty walking, this old man had. He wore a heavy, deep olive-colored car coat and a plaid newsboy-style cap to blunt the raw chill in the air.

I turned and smiled, saying to him, “You're my kinda fella.”

“Hey, I may not be here much longer, but who wants to see the world go to hell? Whoooooo, I can't wait to get in that votin' booth!”

With that, he laughed and seemed to energize a little bit...or maybe it was the slope of the ramp that sped him up somewhat. I don't know. All I know is that I just saw him get just a bit spryer, chugging along now as he continued to laugh with almost anticipatory glee over what he'd be doing next November.

This little old Black man, now trundling along past the Papa Johns and past the OTB parlor, was energized. Energized about change, and anxious to make it happen. It warmed my heart more than a little. He could have simply looked inward—focusing on himself and “just getting by”...but the world beyond just himself was still important, and his vigor at the idea of impacting that world even in his small way gave me hope.

Especially when I think of all the people my age and younger who are so non-committal, and apolitical, and sadly, in so many ways—unconcerned with their place in shaping a democracy. It'd probably take him an hour to get from his door to the polling place a few blocks away, but something tells me his vote'll be in hours before his younger, more complacent neighborhood counterparts.

““Hey, I may not be here much longer, but who wants to see the world go to hell? Whoooooo, I can't wait to get in that votin' booth!”

I hope he catches a few more people holding a door open and spreads more of that spirit.


Encounter #1: Corner of Spring and Crosby Streets in Lower Manhattan, December 27th—11;30 a.m.

I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't reveling in the post-Christmas hollowing-out of the city. The trains? Blissfully passenger sparse. The streets? Passable at last for man and the few vehicles I can actually count as I look up Broadway. I'm in town catching up on some work before hell descends as the grind begins anew next week. My brother's hanging with me as we're going to make an early day of it and meet some family near the job and eat, drink, and be merry LM-family style at some spot downtown. But at this moment, I'm taking a break from work and have strolled over to the great, green goliath of coffee—the Starbucks one block east of Broadway to abuse the gift card my daughter astutely got her daddy.

We find ourselves on a short line and quickly nab our coffees, then opt to sit in-store and drink our rocket-fuel espressos. One sip kicks the chill in the ass and out of the body like a bouncer on his first shift, easily rousting a bar lout into the alley with a punt and a door slam. At a table nearby, three men sit—one in his not-properly-warming hipster stovepipe coat, another in a shearling and a leather applejack cap, and the third in a gray suit with a parka over it and a fur eskimo hat with fur ear flaps.

They were discussing the news of the minute—the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. And doing so I might add, in the typical, myopic, and superficial way I hear in too many folks who seem like they should know better.

The part of their exchange that set me off:

SHEARLING GUY: And it's totally fucked up. People are burning shit in the streets. The government's powerless, and you've bombers running the whole show.

STOVEPIPE GUY; It's the wild west over there. No rules. The wild west. (He sighs) Anything goes...

FUR HAT GUY: That's why you-cannot-deal-with-these-people. They don't think like we do. They're maniacs. Do you—

SHEARLING GUY: Anarchy rules.

STOVEPIPE GUY: No rules, remember?

They all laugh at stovepipe guy's little bon mot.

FUR HAT GUY: But you know what I mean...we don't do shit like that here. That's what separates us from them. We work our situations out. Over there? It's straight for the guns.

SHEARLING GUY: And the bombs. Jesus-fucking-Christ they're thorough. “Oh, here's a couple of bullets—and here's a suicide bomb for good luck.”

They all laugh again.

SHEARLING GUY: Totally different universe over there.

My brother is sitting across from me with his head cocked at that “What the fuck is this idiot-ass clown talking about?” angle, and I can see his jaw tighten a bit and move back and forth, as he's losing the battle against stifling the words rushing from his brain.

I know what's coming next.

An old-fashioned “science-drop” session.

He inherited my father's gene for not suffering fools with even an ounce of gladness, and just has to call shit out when it's being flung.

“Same universe...just different planets, man.” he says, turning his body a bit towards the three not-so-wise men.

And in my head I say, “Here...we...go.

“Are you serious?”, Stovepipe Guy said. “I mean...the way they do things over there,—guns and bombs, and mayhem...”

“Total fucking anarchy.”, piped up Shearling Guy.

“Here, we vote.” said Fur Cap Guy, with an air of misplaced confidence.

And with that, my brother cut the rope, dropping a piano-load of science.

“Tell that to JFK and his brother. My brother here's old enough that it happened in his lifetime, and he ain't that old.”

“JFK I was too young for,” I said. “But RFK I remember like the back of my hand.

“And let's not even talk about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And what'shisname? From that Whoopi Goldberg movie?”, my brother opined.

“Medgar Evers.” I said. “They cut him down for registering people to vote.”

“Yup!” my brother continued. “And all those civil rights workers too. And the government didn't do shit justice-wise. Blowin' up little girls in churches...”

At that point, an older man at an adjacent table chimed in without looking up from his paper and coffee, “Oklahoma City and that nut at the Olympics in Atlanta too. The crazy's everywhere.”

And then I spoke up. “When I was a kid, assassinations were so common here that I thought 'that's just the way things are suppposed to be.' I remember King's and RFK's, and I remember when the guy shot George Wallace even clearer—I was watching a Beverly Hillbillies rerun on Channel 2 one morning and they interrupted everything to cover it. Then you had the two chicks who tried to kill Ford, and Hinckley trying to do Reagan...”

“Our own people blowin' up abortion clinics, and killing the doctors...”, my brother added.

“Militants in the sixties blew a few things up, too.” Newspaper Guy said again in his flat tone. “They blew up stuff, the government blew them up...boom, boom, boom. boom, boom.”

The three not-so-wise men had quieted a bit since my brother's engaging them and leading the de-bunking. But one guy—Fur Hat Guy tried to cap the discussion with an ill-advised “Well...I think we learned from all that. We've matured.”

And with that, Newspaper Guy opened the bomb-bay doors and let drop a lead-weighted, 20-megaton nuke that effectively ended the discussion.

“The second you say we're past all that, that's the moment we become just dumb animals again. They tried to blow up the World Trade in '93, and our guy blew up the place in Oklahoma City a few years later. We were supposed to be past it, though. And not long after that, the guy in Atlanta bombed the Olympics. You mark my words...the second we start saying we're above it, that's when somebody'll show ya we're below it. Guns galore, here. We shoot up schools and malls, but hey...we're above all that.”

He turned our way for the first time, a little sallow-faced, balding, but with a spark in his eyes—“If things turn in this country in a way that pisses off the nuts with guns, the ones who are itchin' to live the second amendment out? You'll see Bhuttos all over the place.”

My brother interrupted him “Yup! And I can tell you just who''ll be-”

“No need to say who's gonna be the victims.” the old man said. “It'll be somebody, and we should be ashamed of it—but we won't be. Not enough..”

Fur Hat Guy leaned back and clasped his hands atop his hat and exhaled a revelatory “Hoo boy. We're fucked.” sigh.

Newspaper guy ended it with this. “You know what the difference is between us and them? Ambulances. We've got plenty of ambulances. They're always having to carry somebody blocks through the streets, bleeding. Better video.”

And with that, he settled back into his paper.

My brother said, “Ambulances.” He laughed and rose, and I did with him as we dumped our cups and bussed our table. We politely said goodbye to Furry, Shearling and Hipster. As we made our way out, my brother laughed and shook his head, saying “Fucking ambulances. Damn.”

We walked the block to Broadway and had the light to cross the street.

But we waited, as a wail cut through the air, interrupted by loud sonic burps. The waiting cars parted and shifted... let an Ambulance from Beekman Downtown Hospital through.

‘Wheeeeeeee-ooooo-wheeeeeeeee-ooooo-blaaaawmp-blaaaawmp! Wheeeeeeee-ooooo-wheeeeeeeee-ooooo-wheeeeeeeeeee...'

And we just looked at each other and...well, mordantly chuckled I guess, as the rig flew down Broadway, sirens echoing off the canyon-ish building facades. And before it, a mile of holiday-emptied streets as a light mist began to fall.