He’s always in front of one of them, pacing around or rocking on an upended milkcrate. His skin has the browned hardness of a person who takes in every ray of sun he encounters. His hair is thick and shocked straight, merging into an equally thick and stiff-straight beard around the chin. His clothes are eternal and dirty, though the only smell that reeks from him is boozy sweat on warm days. I don’t know if he lives anywhere, but he is always at his post, on this corner or on that. He speaks and gestures almost constantly, unintelligible in any language. The only words I’ve ever understood from him have been “good morning,” and “god bless you.” He’s never a threat, he’s just carrying on a lively conversation with a world the rest of us don’t see. Sometimes if his inner dialogue casts itself in my direction, I say hello. Yesterday in the sunny chill, I walked by, and it was one of those days, so I greeted him. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Look, it’s the queen of the neighborhood!” Then he retreated into himself again.
Archive for December, 2008
He’s thin and tall and you can see that his hands have been working for a long time. He’s chopping the thick mean ice in front of the church. “That’s tough work today,” I say. He stops and looks up, leaning on the long stick of the icebreaker. “Yes it is. But lookin’ at you,” he says, “I got me some new energy.”
It’s the kind of place where you order at the counter and seat yourself. The old man in front of me is wide and round and leans heavily on his cane. He has a kind, soft face, the sort that smiles even when no one is looking. His body is failing but still, the face holds traces of his younger self. They put a flat bowl of soup on the counter in front of him, a thing that can’t be managed with his weight on the cane. I offer to carry it to his table. He tells me that would be very nice, and points to one. Before he sits down, he lays aside the cane and clasps my hand between his. “Can I tell you something?” he asks. “Don’t get any older than you are right now.”
It was as big and bright as is possible given the orbits and angles of planetary motion. It hung low by the borough’s lone skyscraper, dwarfing the neon clock on the tower. I was going to the bodega for a soda, but I stopped a while, leaning on a parking sign’s metal post, washed over by the impossibly lovely light. This man walks along, gnawing on a fried chicken leg, giving his back to the sky’s spectacle. I stop him. “Did you see the moon?” I ask. He pulls the chicken away from his teeth and looks at me as if to say, but you don’t look crazy, honey, what’s up with that? Finally he plays along and asks, “It full?” I say, “Yeah, but it’s really really big,” and I point behind me. He shifts around a moment to see. Then he turns back to the way he’d been going, shakes his head, and sucks a sliver of meat from its bone.
He’s standing in front of my house when I step out onto the stoop. He’s looking back and forth from the basement apartment of my building to the one next door. He’s maybe 45, in jeans and an FDNY bomber jacket, salt and pepper hair. He’s too clean for this neighborhood, somehow. I can’t put my finger on it, maybe his jeans have been ironed. He looks up at me, sheepish, and explains, “I’m looking for my sister’s place. She just moved here with her husband. Latina girl? I can’t remember which one is her house.”
“Well,” I say, pointing to my building. “It’s not this one.”
“Great,” he says and stands in front of the neighbor’s with his hands on his hips. He’s not ready for the door yet. He paces a little as I walk toward the subway, and then gathers himself and walks through the iron gate. I hear it scraping on the sidewalk.
For no good or specific reason at all, as I turn the corner, I think: that man is an axe murderer.