Walking down Sixth Street toward my brick wall this morning, I caught a glimpse of the city after an overnight rain storm. My patent leather shoes from Goodwill got a little wet in the sporadic puddles along the sidewalk, but I didn’t really mind. They’ll have time to dry as the day goes on, I’m sure. And it looks like the sun’s finally decided to show itself.
I passed by at least a few abandoned umbrellas on the ground, most of which looked slightly defective or recently maimed by the wind and the rain. They probably held up nicely for a few blocks but ultimately succumbed to the storm as it passed through. I didn’t like the look of them all scattered around the neighborhood for some reason, so I picked up a few along the way as they lay like metal fatalities on the ground.
“What’s that?” Someone asks, gesturing to the mountain of discarded umbrellas that now sit piled next to me on the ground against the brick wall.
“Just some umbrellas.”
I look up at this man with an obvious Godfather complex, gelled hair to the point of plasticity, a white tank top and jeans, and a pack of cigarettes peeking out from his front pocket. I didn’t know they were filming Grease 9 in the neighborhood, but I decide not to ask which character he was supposed to be. “You sellin’ em?” he asks.
“Not really.” I say.
“Well– they’re all broken. I just found them on the sidewalk this morning.”
“Oh, so…” He lifts his sunglasses to get a better look and asks, “They supposed to be some kinda art or somethin’?”
“Not really. I just felt like collecting them.”
“Oh…” He turns his body to lean next to me, lifting his right foot to rest on the wall, so now he looks almost exactly like the Marlboro man, only without the hat (yes, I’m old enough to remember cigarette advertisements, come on.) He speaks with his words directed at the street, not down to me, as if he’s somehow afraid the FBI is watching. “Well, how ‘bout you let me have ‘em?”
“I’ll give you five bucks.”
“Make it ten.”
“Yeah.” He bends down and whispers, “I can use the metal as scrap for a bit of cash.”
“You’ll get more than ten dollars for the scrap?”
“Yeah, man, this is good metal here.” He pauses, removing a cigarette from his pack and perching it on his lips without lighting up. He tilts his head with shrugged shoulders, as if he’s giving me top secret information, “I know a guy, okay–”
I momentarily debate seeking a new career path, but quickly reconsider when I realize I’m still holding out for something better than scrap. “Fine, man. Take it. Enjoy.”
“Thanks.” He flicks a cigarette to the curb — the same one he never lit in the first place — and bends down to collect the pile. The last image I have of him is that of a dozen flapping umbrella skins flying above his head and water droplets falling from the heap in his arms to the sidewalk.
Okay, I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s all crazies and weirdoes around here, day in and day out. I only put these out here at the beginning to draw you in so you’d come back for more. I hope it worked; hope you’re still on the edge of your couch or bed or park bench waiting for the point, as intended. If not, if it took you a year to get from my first soliloquy to now, I apologize. You can stop by and I’ll do my best to get your money back if you paid to read this. As you well know, I just got ten dollars for a stack of umbrellas, so it’s yours if you need it. First come, first serve as I’m not sure how many unsatisfied customers are out there.
But anyway, I do get a lot of visitors who are just, what you would call, “normal”. People who want to know more about me or want me to know more about them.
I’ll give you a good example from earlier today. This guy came over during his lunch break and talked for awhile. He walked over with a burrito and then, despite my insistence that he not, went back and bought me a burrito also.
He stood while we talked, with apologies, saying that he couldn’t risk dirtying his suit by sitting on the ground before going back to work.
“My office is up in Gramercy, man. But, I come all the way down here for this amazing burrito at Mamacitas. Every Thursday. I call it my ‘little mamacita’.” After the first bite, I didn’t blame him one bit.
While somehow shooting a perfect swish into the garbage bin with his burrito trash, he asks, “So what’s the deal, kid?” He calls me ‘kid’ though I can’t imagine he’s much more than ten years older than me. Despite the minimal age gap, honestly, you take one look at him – all professional with his hair combed back and a fancy Rolex– and one look at me, I don’t necessarily disagree with the ‘kid’.
“What’s the deal with what?”
“I’ve been watching you for weeks now. What’s up with the suit and the sign?”
“I don’t know. I just got tired of sitting around. Wanted to put myself out there.”
“Well, you’re out there.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I twist my face up to the sky and squint between sun beams to see his face.
“Nothing, I just don’t know many people who would do what you’re doing.”
“What is it that I’m doing?” I ask, with genuine interest.
“Looks like you’re making a statement.”
“Well, I’m not trying to.”
“But you are. You should be aware of it.”
“Well, why don’t you tell me about my statement so I don’t look like an asshole if someone comes around and asks about it?”
He smiles with a silent laugh manifested in the creases around his eyes. Then, his expression turns more solemn as he says, “It’s tough out there and you’re telling the world. It’s admirable. You’re doing everyone a favor by not disappearing.”
“Well, thanks. I guess. I was never good at disappearing. I’ve got three older brothers.”
“Really?” I nod. “I’ve got two.”
I nod and add, “You gotta fight to be heard.”
He nods back and, with a flick of his hand in the air, gives an “Aw, fuck it,” as he sits down on the ground next to me.
“Thanks, man.” I say, appreciating the chance to see him at eye-level, and he reaches out his hand.
“Matt Schneider.” He says.
We shake hands with burrito remnants on our fingertips, like blood brothers without the blood. Lunch brothers, I guess.
“Good to meet you.”
He bends his knees up to his chest and his tie flops over his legs. It’s one of those geometric ties that hurts if you stare at it too long, which is what I was doing when he says, looking out onto Avenue A as the M15 bus passes by, “So, how long have you been out here, Jack?”
“About a month.”
“You been looking for jobs that long?”
“Hell no.” A woman drops her keys in front of me. After an awkward moment where it seems she’s debating moving closer, I pick them up and hand them back as they dangle and jiggle in the space between us. She smiles and doesn’t smile at the same time and quickly walks away. “Been looking for almost a year.”
“Shit, man. I’m sorry.” I nod to let him know I do believe that he’s sorry, but honestly after all the “sorrys” I’ve heard from people who really aren’t to blame for my current situation, I’ve run out of adequate responses. “What kind of job you looking for?”
“Well, there’s your first problem.”
“Why is that a problem?”
“Can’t just look for anything. You gotta know what you want, man. Talk to people who do it, and work towards that. Find out how they got there.”
“Well, what’d you do?” I ask, staring at his geometric tie, but feeling slightly queasy in the process.
“I work in an auction house. Antiques. Rare books. Stuff like that.”
“Well, I’m absolutely sure I don’t want that.”
“No, it’s just…” I roll up my burrito trash, struggling with how to word this in the right way. “I’m not sure what I do want, but I just don’t think that’s my thing, you know?”
“Well, maybe you’ll be the kind of guy who’s defined by what you don’t want. Rather than what you do.”
“That doesn’t sound too flattering.”
He points to me and says, “Flattering or not. You gotta figure out what angle you want to take and stick to it. Don’t just wallow around in the middle the whole time and claim you tried.”
“Point taken.” I take a long look at his shiny black dress shoes, which have creased and bent near his toes, as if his shoes can barely keep his feet in with all their daily movement. Mine only look that way because they used to be some other working man’s shoes, some anonymous guy who either retired or earned his way to better ones. “But how’ll I know what I like until I get out there and try a few things? I mean, really, did you know rare books were your thing until you got there?”
“Not a bad point. I’d probably still be working at Bagel Bros. if this new gig hadn’t come along after college. But I guess it’s a chicken and egg sort of thing. Can’t know what you want without a job. Can’t get a job without some direction on what you want. But, really man, just do some thinking so you’re at least heading in some direction. You can always change course. And it’ll help you network if you can clarify your goals at least a little.”
“I guess you’re right.”
We share a portion of the silence until his cell phone begins to buzz. “Well, that’s my alarm. Sorry, man, I gotta get back to work.”
“No problem. Thanks for the company… and the burrito.”
As he turns to hail a cab, I call out to him, “Hey Matt.” And he turns as I add, “Thanks for being honest.”
He nods, sinking into a cab that hurls its way through a red light and heads back uptown to Gramercy.
After Matt left, I had some down time to send out a few more resumes and cover letters before Herm arrived for coffee. Bud wasn’t around, so I spent some time trying to get the attention of passersby. You’d be shocked at how many people pretend not to see a man in a suit on the ground waving wildly at them and asking for help. I’d say at least twenty people passed before an early-middle-aged woman in high heels and a long legs walks by, smiling at something in the distance like the setting sun or the sound of laughter in the park.
She stops and looks down at me. “Me?” I nod. “Please don’t call me M’am. I’m not that old, am I?”
I’ve never known how to handle the female-age conundrum. Of course she looks older than me. Of course I can tell. But, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have hot legs and I wouldn’t go home with her if she asked. Not sure exactly how to word that in a response so I simply say, “Of course not.”
“Good…thank you.” No, no thank you, Mrs. Robinson.
“Any chance I can convince you to help me out for a minute?” I ask.
“What do you need?”
A steamy sexual encounter with an older woman. A back massage. “Some advice on a cover letter?”
“You’re writing cover letters?” I nod. “On the sidewalk?”
“Can you think of a better place?”
“Well, this is a good place for feedback. So, I’m working with it.”
“Admirable…” She says and, again, I point my face to the pavement so she won’t see me blush. I hate that my face is so readable. It totally kills my mojo with the ladies. “So what kind of advice do you need?”
“I think I need a better hook.”
“A hook? Why do you need a hook?”
“So someone will actually read it.”
“I thought someone has to read it?” I shake my head. “Forgive me, it’s been awhile since I’ve written a cover letter–”
“You’re a lucky woman, then.” I say with a smile.
“So, what’s your hook?”
“Charming, boyishly-handsome twenty-something looking for any kind of job that pays…wait, that’s my Craigslist post.”
“Are you flirting with me?”
I twirl my thumbs in a circle. “That okay?”
“It’s okay… as long as you know I’m going to continue down this block in about a minute no matter what you say.”
“Then it’ll be a short relationship.”
“So, what’s the hook, little Don Juan?”
I smile. “Dear Sir or Madam–”
“These people don’t have names?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, do some research and see if you can find the names. Usually it’s written in the job description. Or at least, we write at least one contact name from HR in the descriptions at my office.”
I started to pull up the job description on my laptop, but then fear losing her to the swarm of street traffic moving around us, so I ask, “And if I can’t find it?”
“Then you’re no worse off that you were before.”
“Now, continue…” She says, and I grin a little, thinking that somehow she’s still interested in helping.
“As your Research Associate, I would bring passion and energy to your team–”
“Seriously.” I look at her face. She’s serious.
“What’s wrong with that?”
She plants her hand on her hip and shifts slightly closer to my brick wall. “What’s wrong with ‘passion’ and ‘energy’?”
“It’s sounds terribly phony, that’s what’s wrong with it.”
“Well, sincerity isn’t getting me anywhere.”
“That bullshit’s not going to get you anywhere either, kid–”
“Jack…” I like the way she says my name, like a microscopic pocket of heat from deep inside her lungs. “You can do better.”
I pause. “So what should I write? Please, for the love of God, give me a job so I can finally know what it’s like to sit in an office chair instead of pavement? Please hire me, I just want a paycheck and I don’t care how I get it.”
“It’s better than what you’ve got there. I need more Jack in that letter. I don’t see him there.”
“Well, I don’t know where the hell he is anymore.”
“He’s in there somewhere.”
“They don’t seem to want me as is anyway.” And I look down, realizing the truth in what I’ve just said.
She looks down and her voice softens. “Hang in there, Jack. It gets better.” She starts to walk away and adds, “And you’re charming enough to write a decent cover letter. I’ve known you only five minutes and I know that.”
“Wait, you’re leaving?”
“Gotta get the little ones from soccer.”
“Well, thanks for your help.”
“No problem. Thank you for the flirtation. You made my day, actually.”
The look on her face makes me actually believe her, but I still can’t hold in a little chuckle with my reply, “That’s my job, I guess.” Can’t think of a better one.
She smiles and, I swear to you, her hips sway just a little bit more than when she first passed by.
As I’m trying to incorporate this feedback into a revised cover letter, I see Herm turn the corner onto Avenue A. Sometimes I wave, in the off-chance that he can see me. But it looks like he’s looking down, concentrating on his steps. Either that or he really likes to follow his own shadow along the pavement as the beginnings of a setting sun passes overhead.
At 3:45 he sloshes in front of me and says, “Hey there, Jackie-boy. What’s new down there?”
“Same old, Herm. How’s the love life?”
“Ahhh, these women. Gonna send me to an early grave.”
“Stay strong, Herm.”
He nods with his eyes closed. “Coffee?”
As he reappears through the glass door of the coffee shop, I see that somehow he’s not only convinced Michelle to allow him to take a chair outside, but she’s actually carrying it out to the sidewalk for him.
“Hi Jack.” She says with a shy smile, the breeze blowing a few strands of her hair over her beautiful eyes.
“Hi.” I say with my eyes down.
“Hermie, is there where you want it?”
“Indeed. Thank you.” He sits and stretches his legs far in front of him as Michelle walks back inside.
I ask, once the glass door shuts, “How’d you convince her this time, Herm?”
“That’s my little secret, Jackie-boy.” He scratches his forehead. “But on a related subject, I do think she likes you.”
“How is that a related subject?”
“I’ve got my reasons.”
“Did she say something?”
From across the street, I hear, “Get a job, asshole.”
“Thanks, man.” Then I look at my watch. “You’re early.”
He gives me the finger, but still responds, “Half day.”
“Enjoy,” I yell back as he turns the corner onto Sixth Street. It takes me a minute to remember what Herm and I were discussing. “You think Michelle likes me?” He nods. “Why?”
“Before I tell you, I want to give you the opportunity to swear off women forever, Jackie-boy.”
“Not gonna happen, Herm.”
“They’ll send you to an early grave.”
“So will high cholesterol…but I’m not quitting Taco Bell.”
“Good point. Love those chulupas.” Oddly, he seems particularly moved by the Taco Bell reference and says, with a smile I haven’t seen on him in awhile, “We used to make it a special Friday night dinner, chulupas and tortilla chips with salsa.”
“Ellen and I.” Herm’s referring to his wife of fifty-five years, who passed away a few years ago. He has a few “girlfriends” that he plays checkers with at the Senior Center on Bowery, but he says it’s just to fill the time, to have someone to play checkers with, really.
He continues, “We used to walk to the Taco Bell on 14th Street on Friday nights. Made a whole night of it. Used to listen to the noise from the bars between here and there and laugh at the kids and their ridiculous Friday nights…” He glanced down at the ground. “She used to always laugh and say, ‘Remember when that was us, Hermie?’ But I don’t know, Jackie-boy, the noise never sounded that awful when we were that age. Now it sounds like a disease pouring out onto the street.”
I figured this was a good time to let Herm sit and reminisce. I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend fifty-five years with someone and then lose them one night, just like that. My only confrontation with loss was when I was eight and my dog, Ralphie, died. I didn’t eat for two days and I cried at the dinner table to an empty plate, even though my brothers laughed at me the whole time. I don’t even want to think about that again, so I just watch people on the street and play a game where I guess where they’re going.
After a few moments of silence, I start to get a little anxious thinking about Michelle and the possibility that I might have a chance, turning to Herm to ask, “So why’d you think Michelle likes me?”
And he looks down to me with tears that hide just behind his eyes and says, “Not ready to tell you just yet.”
I packed up my briefcase after Herm left and got home just in time for dinner. Jay’s girlfriend, Ashley, was making chicken parmigiana, a personal favorite because she lets the cheese burn slightly on the top before she takes it out of the oven, although now that I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever told her that I love it. I should tell her sometime, maybe tomorrow.
We sat on the couch with our plates balanced on our laps, watching MANswers on Spike TV, when Ashley asks,“Why am I being forced to watch this shit when I’m the one who cooked? Shouldn’t I get to choose?” Ashley never had a problem with shows on Spike before tonight. Only a few short months ago, she was (now we realize) feigning total excitement over it. This one time, I remember, she let out this loud cackle and said, “These guys are awesome! I love this show.” We thought she was awesome for “getting us.”
So, I’m starting to feel like things are turning sour for Jay and Ashley, which wouldn’t ordinarily affect me if it weren’t for the fact that she now feeds me and washes my bed sheets. Jay doesn’t seem ruffled by the tension, so my guess is, he’s already checked out. I kind of feel like a little kid who’s starting to notice his parents might be getting a divorce. My own parents aren’t separated, but I have enough friends who went through it to at least notice the warning signs. And they look a little something like this:
“Thought you liked this.” He says into his plate, inhaling a large piece of garlic bread and washing it down with a massive swig of his Heineken.
“Well, I don’t. It’s stupid.”
“Jack likes it.”
“Jack’s a meathead shit-face like you.”
“Hey, now–” I protest, even though I know this probably doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s becoming abundantly clear that this is some continuation from an earlier argument.
“Jack likes it. I like it. You’re out-numbered.”
“Well, maybe you or Jack can figure out how to use the fucking stove from now on, then.” She pulls her sweatshirt out from underneath Jay on the couch, slamming her plate on the coffee table as she stands. “Bye, Jack.” And I nod with wide eyes as she stomps loudly on the tile floor in a pair of ridiculously high heels. They remind me of circus performers on stilts, actually.
After the front door slams behind her, Jay turns to me and says, “Sorry, man.”
“Damn. You okay, dude?”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“Not really.” He gets up from the couch and paces back and forth in front of the front door. After a few minutes, he walks over to the kitchen sink and lifts an empty plastic cup from inside, hurling it across the apartment as sporadic droplets of water fly out. It rattles as it hits the wall and falls to the floor. Then he sits back down next to me and we finish our dinner in silence.
Around midnight, our other roommates, Mike and Doug, burst through the door, drunk and rowdy and looking for sustenance. Jay and I are sitting in the exact same spots where Ashley left us only an hour ago and I can feel the heat held in the cushion beneath me as I shift to make room for them. Although only an hour had passed, it seemed like more with all the silence.
Mike gallops over to the coffee table toward the remaining pieces of chicken parmagiana after tossing his suit jacket in a heap to the left of the front door. “What’d my favorite little blond chef make for us this evening?”
Doug slams one of the kitchen drawers and runs over with two forks that should not have been as dirty as they actually were, but rarely get cleaned with more than a paper towel and a bit of hot water if we’re lucky.
“Chicken parmagiana, boys.” Jay continues to stare at the television, “Enjoy it while it lasts. We’re ordering in from now on.”
Mike stumbles on the ottoman, reminding both Jay and I that they must’ve been drinking since work ended at six. “Dammit, Jay, we give you one job in this apartment. One job. Stay with the girl who cooks and cleans. And you go and fuck it up. What’re we supposed to do now?”
“I’m sorry, Mikey. I failed to consider your feelings when my relationship ended.”
Mike points his fork toward Jay’s face. “S’ok, man. But maybe we can have a family meeting next time.”
Doug chimes in, “That’s my boy. Already getting feisty again.”
“Shut up…” Jay shoots up from the couch and walks toward our PlayStation 3. He takes Assassin’s Creed out from its case and holds it steady as the machine gobbles it up. “I need to stab something. Who’s in?”
And we all nod in agreement.
As dawn begins to spread around the buildings across the courtyard and climb through our window, Jay and I still sit solemnly on the couch playing Assassin’s Creed. It seemed Jay still had not had enough of “stabbing something” though as the night wore on, his aggressive pounding on the remote buttons gradually became less and less forceful and his taunting at the screen became more and more slurred. We were both pretty drunk by this point, evident mostly by the two dozen or so empty beer bottles on the coffee table in front of us. After he capriciously jumped off yet another tall building in Borgia-controlled Rome and killed his player, he thrust his wasted body back against the couch with an, “I’m done.” Before I could even respond, his eyes were sliding shut and he was fast asleep.
I spread my comforter over him and walked through the hallway to his room to get some sleep before walking to my brick wall in a few hours. Hey, I’m not gonna pass up an empty bed if I have the chance…