Jack and the Brick Wall
Now a monthly series on the Dunce Academy blog!
Below is the short story version on which this expanded series is based.
“Dear Sir or Madam. My past experiences on the Doherty for Senate Campaign, combined with my relevant coursework in political science and economics, make me especially qualified for your Research Associate position…” I pause to stare at the bland words I’ve written about a hundred times in various iterations over the past year, then turn to my visitor and ask, “So, what’d you think, Bud?”
“Wizards and ghosts.” Bud is probably not your sanest homeless guy, frequently providing a few too many sound bites that remind me of a bad LSD trip, except it doesn’t seem like a trip at all. More like Bud each and every day of his life. “There’s no one here but wizards and ghosts,” he adds.
“Well, what do the wizards and ghosts think of this cover letter?”
“They think it sucks.”
“I’ll change the wording, then. You think the relevant coursework part should go too?”
“All of it. They’ll kill you otherwise.”
“The wizards and ghosts will?” Bud shakes his head as he holds his pointer finger up to his mouth to keep our conversation out of earshot from the obvious wizards and ghosts nearby. “Well, I’ll scratch it all then. Thanks Bud.”
Bud then points his shopping cart back in the direction of Tompkins Square Park and gives me a nod that lets me know he’s aware that he’s helped me out somehow. His cart rattles and shakes with the uneven sidewalk as cans and bottles and an old, splintering folding chair, three headless Barbie dolls, and a handful of mini umbrellas bounce around inside. As I watch him, it becomes very clear to me that I’ve never seen a larger trench coat on a smaller man. It makes me wonder where he got it and maybe, somewhere in this million-man ocean, an underdressed giant is roaming around New York without adequate protection from the rain.
Here on the sidewalk, I get a very rare opportunity to read my cover letters aloud and get some diverse and honest feedback from a handful of the world’s harshest critics like Bud. As I watch him slowly move down Avenue A, I prop up my sign so passersby can read it a little better:
Bored and Frustrated.
Talk to Me. Please.
You might be wondering why I wrote this. Why, about a month ago, I scribbled these words onto a piece of recycled printer paper and taped it to the outside of a box of Captain Crunch I had finished for breakfast that morning. You might also be wondering why I took this sign and walked the 500-or-so feet to the corner of my block on Sixth Street and Avenue A – just far enough from Tompkins Square Park to avoid the noise, but close enough to enjoy the foot traffic. You also might be wondering why I now sit against an old vacant brick building on that corner everyday from 9AM-6PM and talk to anyone who will join me in conversation. For your sake, I’ll provide the best explanation I can before my story even begins:
Why not? I’ve got something else to do? Not in this economy. And, I’m getting tired of watching The View and reruns of Scooby Doo.
But enough about me. I’d like to know more about you. Of course, since you haven’t stopped by my brick wall yet, I’ll provide some insufficient, sweeping judgments on your character. I’ll bet you’re smart and funny or you probably wouldn’t still be reading my little narrative (my ex-girlfriend says I’m arrogant, my mom says I’m confident. POHtato PotAAto). I’ll bet you’re also a fairly interesting person, interesting enough to pick up some random story from your corner book store (if there are any corner book stores left where you live) or (more likely) online retailer or (even more likely) some website that has illegally scanned this story. Maybe Amazon recommended me based on your interest in stories written by other handsome, twenty-something graduates of liberal arts colleges without a job. Or maybe you like the idea of a story about a man who’s down on his luck. Maybe it makes you feel better about your own woes – financial or otherwise. And, if I’m serving that purpose in your life, then fine. I’m willing to accept that. I have closer friends than you who seek me out for the same purpose, although honestly most of them are unemployed also.
While I’m sitting here against my brick wall, mind wandering and wondering about you, I fail to notice a young girl approach me from around the corner on Avenue A. It’s a schizophrenic sort of day, even by New York standards and though it’s September, it still feels like summertime; the kind of day where some passersby wear overcoats and others wear tank tops and somehow both are appropriate. As she carries a vanilla ice cream cone, her pigtail braids sway from side to side and she gallops along the sidewalk toward me. She catches my eye and stops.
“Why’re you sitting there?” She asks.
“Doesn’t look comfortable.”
“It’s not so bad.”
She looks at the empty space next to me and, with a shrug, joins me on the ground against the brick wall. At first she tries to sit like me, with one leg stretched far along the ground and the other bent up, but then switches to the more comfortable cross-legged position. You might be interested to know that, of my daily visitors, about a third are children under the age of fifteen and that these visitors are the most likely to sit in the cross-legged position. I’m not sure if you’re the sort of person who studies people or is interested in human behavior in general, but if you are, this might be an appropriate side note. If not, you’ve just endured the first of many random side notes of this story, so be patient and learn to handle life’s little side notes. Or else, I can guarantee this is going to be a long ride for you.
Anyway, after a sweeping lick of the dripping vanilla ice cream, she asks, “Are you a bum?” She fidgets with her purple skirt a little, pulling it so it extends further across her knees.
“I don’t think so.”
“Is this where you live?”
She looks at me, dressed in my perfectly-pressed black suit and red tie, and asks with hesitation, “Is this where you work?”
“What’d you mean, ‘sort of’?”
“Well, I don’t have a job, so I come here instead.”
“My daddy has a job,” she says, twirling her hair with the hand that doesn’t hold the ice cream cone.
“He’s a lucky man.”
“He’s always grumpy when he comes home.”
“Well, jobs can make people grumpy. They can also make people very happy. You know, I’ve been looking for –”
Right in the middle of this critical explanation of jobs and the real world, her mother spins around the corner at high speed and interrupts me with, “Jenny, what are you doing?”
“I’m talking, mama.”
“You were supposed to come right home.”
Her mother looks down at me and continues talking to Jenny. “You shouldn’t be talking to strangers, love.”
Jenny gets back to her feet, “He’s just working.”
Her mother gives me a quizzical look and takes her daughter’s hand as they turn the corner. I return to my random scanning of passersby on the street, my daily practice of watching the masses from the ground. Not more than ten seconds later, Jenny runs around the corner again and stops, just short of trampling my suit jacket on the pavement next to me.
“What’s your name?” She says with a giggle.
“Can I come over again tomorrow, Jack?”
I wink at her, like I do to my little niece, “Of course.”
“You’ll still be here?”
“The world’s not gonna change before tomorrow, will it?” She shakes her head. “Then I’ll be here.”
She jumps in the air and yells, “See you then!” Her white and pink sneakers blink like disco lights as she hits the ground and races around the corner toward, what I can only assume is, home.
I know what you’re thinking about this Hallmark moment, but I’m a sucker for these little kids. I love when they trot by and sit for awhile. Their view is so uninhibited. It reminds me of a time in college, when – do you have time for another side note? Ok, good.
It reminds me of a time in college when I was tutoring at a middle school in Detroit. This kid Bernie was my favorite to work with, not only because of his name, but he was also the funniest little guy in the program. He used to have the entire room laughing hysterically – everyone from the program director all the way down to the other kids. Anyway, we were working on a particularly difficult night of math homework on a much more solemn day for Bernie’s mood, when he turned to me and says, “Hey Jack, let’s just forget it.”
“What’d you mean?”
“What difference does it make if I know this shit?”
“Well, it’s important to know.”
“Why?” He asked in a way that did not sound like a question.
“So you get good grades.”
“Who gives a shit about good grades?”
“You’ll need it to get into college and get a good job.”
“I doubt it.”
“You doubt you’ll need it or you doubt you’ll get a good job?”
“There’ll be plenty of decent jobs when the time comes, buddy. You just gotta work hard for it.”
He rolled his eyes at me and added, “I doubt it.”
There you have it. My own future predicted five years ago by a twelve year-old. And I wasn’t even listening at the time. You tell me that that’s not ironic.
Meanwhile, I should tell you that while I was flashing back just then, I saw Herman moving slowly down Avenue A toward the coffee shop immediately to my left. Every day, my elderly friend turns the corner at Ninth Street at around 3:15 in the afternoon. He walks the three blocks to the coffee shop with the speed of a sundial, typically reaching me by 3:45, shoes dragging along the pavement as if he were walking through a four-foot snowdrift. I’m embarrassed to say that I love to watch him. He walks three blocks with more determination than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. Just curious, have you ever seen On Golden Pond with Peter Fonda? If not, check it out and you’ll know exactly what Herman is like, in body and in spirit.
He smiles as he reaches me and leans against the brick wall, fixing a few strands of hair over his shiny bald head that the breeze must’ve blown out of place with his lightning speed. Every day for a month, Herman has used the same greeting once he finally reaches me and so, I wait the minute or two it takes him to catch his breath in order to hear this standard greeting. Like two coworkers at the water cooler.
“Hey there, Jackie-boy. What’s new down there?”
And I respond with my daily, “Same old, Herm. How’s the love life?”
“Frustrating, as always.”
“You think women get easier as they get older? Ha! It gets worse and worse, my friend. Keep that in mind before it’s too late.”
“Care for a coffee on the government dollar?”
“You know it.”
Herm disappears into the coffee shop and emerges about fifteen minutes later with two small black coffees, lid lifted already so I don’t have to wait to take my first sip. He hands me one and says, “Thank you, Social Security.”
I raise my cup. “Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
“The coffee or the Social Security?” He holds the cup to his face, twisting and turning it as he reads the CAUTION HOT disclaimer in five different languages.
“Well, both I guess.”
“You think either’ll be around when I’m your age, Herm?”
“The Social Security, not a chance. I hope for your sake the coffee still is, but who knows? You might be having coffee through a pill by then.”
I nod and take another sip. Hot coffee on a summer day, while not ideal, still tastes delicious. My stomach rumbles as its being tickled with warmth from the inside, reminding me that I didn’t have lunch or breakfast today. The traffic should be able to distract me until dinnertime, I hope. I like days like these the most, when the sidewalk activity is strong enough to distract me from hunger.
Herman looks down at me and says, “Be right back.” He walks into the coffee shop and returns a few minutes later with a chair taken from one of the indoor tables. It scrapes against the concrete, producing a sound not unlike a passing MAC truck, drawing attention from a few passersby and Herm waves with the free hand. He drops it against the wall next to me and falls into it with a deep exhale. From the ground, I get a picture-perfect view of a pair of worn grey socks that hang loosely over his wrinkly calves. Does my real estate have the best views in the city? Probably not. But the rent is cheap, so I don’t complain.
I gesture toward the chair that his aging body rests upon. “Not sure the guys inside would approve.” I’ve protested similar acts of Herm’s in the past and he is rarely persuaded.
“I’d like to see them pull a chair out from under an old man.”
“Not without a fight, right?” And he nods.
About ten minutes later, Michelle comes out from inside the coffee shop with a half- cautious, half-I-just-moved-here-to-pursue-my-dreams smile across her face. She walks slowly toward Herm and me like she’s done for days and days before. Her feet flop along the ground in her black Reef sandals and she wears a tight cotton t-shirt and a pair of jeans. I’m telling you this because she looks simply amazing, despite being casual about it. How do women do this? To women of all ages, creeds, and backgrounds: I hope you will consider visiting me at the brick wall and shedding some light on this because the mystery is just killing me. I’m twenty-two years old, and I’ve had my share of experiences with women (between you and me, though, they were mostly alcohol-induced), but I simply cannot understand how a woman in a cotton t-shirt and jeans can look so incredibly beautiful.
“Hermie, I’m sorry but the chairs are for inside the shop.” She looks guilty, like I do when I get upset at something Herm does, as if we’re scolding our own grandparents. Michelle’s a sweet girl and I think I might even have a chance, if it wasn’t for that fact that I sit outside her coffee shop every day like a bum. I’d prefer to call it “putting it out there” – or letting her know all my baggage up front, so to speak – but I don’t pretend that it’s probably very unattractive to her. Maybe someday she’ll notice my charm, but until then, I’m just the guy sitting next to Herm when he starts spewing craziness out onto Avenue A.
“I fought in Vietnam for the freedom to sit wherever I damn well please!”
“Herm, you weren’t in Vietnam.” I say this gently whenever he talks about his war experience. I can guarantee you, he did fight in some war, but it definitely wasn’t Vietnam. Herm doesn’t seem to remember anymore, but seems the same age as my grandpa who drove a tank into France right after the Normandy invasion. I have a sneaking suspicion that if he drove a tank at the Normandy invasion, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here and maybe that’s of no importance to you, but I’m thankful to whatever General (or Captain or whoever makes those kinds of decisions) that left him off the roster that day. I don’t know anything about war except what I know from Call of Duty so I’ll forgo any additional comments. Herm might have been standing right next to my grandpa at the time, or he could have been thousands of miles away. It’s one of those things no one will ever know and I’m a little disappointed by that fact.
Anyway, Herm looks over at Michelle with anger in his eyes, “I’m talking to my friend here. You expect me to stand?”
Michelle looks away, “No, Hermie. Just come inside.” She looks at me gently. “Both of you can come inside.”
Isn’t she sweet? I can guarantee you I’m blushing as she says this, but I look down to the concrete so she won’t notice.
Herm stomps his foot against the ground. “My man’s working out here. He can’t just drop everything and go inside your little hippie shop.”
“Oh come on, Herm. She’s just doing her job.”
“Well, her job’s infringing on my freedom.”
Can’t argue with that. I give Michelle a wink from the ground and she turns to go back to the counter and take someone’s four-dollar latte order. She seems neither repulsed by nor grateful for my wink and I take this as a small victory.
Herm points his finger in my direction like an orator on a soapbox, “You like her.”
I shrug with possibly the saddest attempt at blasé and say, “So?”
He exhales, “Just remember what I told you, Jackie-boy. She might be cute now. But she’s gonna get older and more and more crazy every day from this moment on.”
I nod to let him know I understand, but truthfully I’m willing to take the gamble if it meant I could see Michelle naked. My guess is it’s something worth seeing.
You should know that the first time I met Michelle was when I applied for a job as a Barista at the coffee shop a few months back. I noticed the WE’RE HIRING sign in the window and, at the time, used to say things inside my own head like, “This must be my lucky day!” As if I was a character on Leave It To Beaver or something. But Michelle’s boss took one look at my resume and told me I was “overqualified” for the job and didn’t seem to care when I told him I did not mind being overqualified.
If you walk by the coffee shop now you’ll see the sign’s still up, months later. It’s next to the sign about FREE WiFi (which I subsequently “steal” from the ground next to the shop to do my daily job search on my laptop – if you can actually steal something that’s already free, that is). Not sure who they’re waiting for, but it’s clearly not me. And the boss still sees me sitting here every morning when he comes in to supervise and isn’t swayed by my commitment to the vacant brick building. But I don’t hold a grudge. I know what it’s like to be looking for something in particular. Maybe he had one of those trendy NYU film majors in mind for the job. Or an artist looking for some extra cash. Not some guy with a joint economics/political science degree and one measly summer internship at a political campaign office (the guy didn’t even win the election, so it’s not like I could boast a victory).
Meanwhile, Herm’s still sitting in the chair next to me while I’m side-noting. He doesn’t ever seem uncomfortable with my silence while my mind wanders. And actually, he seems distracted by his own side notes. I’d like to get inside his head, if I could, just to hear some of his side notes. I wonder if they move in a hyperactive sort of way like mine, or if they match the pace of his movement down the street.
I know a big part of my draw to Herm is his likeness to my grandpa and I do miss him. Don’t worry, he’s still alive and doing well. Well, not totally well. His memory certainly isn’t what it used to be, but all in all he’s a pretty sharp guy. He still drives around town and volunteers at the animal shelter in Boynton Beach, Florida and plays poker at the clubhouse in his 55-and-over (way over) community. I really don’t visit as much as I’d like, even though I know he’d pay the airfare, but I don’t know – there’s something holding me back. Something I can’t totally explain. But, it’s like… have you ever looked a guy in the eye who’s won the Purple Heart? I don’t know, there’s something about having to look him in the eye and tell him I’m still failing – that I haven’t found my way yet. As if a man like that is even familiar with the word failure. I don’t know, something about telling him, in particular, makes me feel like I’m even more of a failure. I just can’t do it.
Anyway, I have Herm in the meantime. I like to think that old people can channel their thoughts to one another and maybe Herm is telepathically telling my grandpa all the things I can’t find the balls to tell him.
I look at my watch and realize its a little past 4:30. From down the street, I can hear the same group of raucous teenagers that rush past me every afternoon. Their banter gets louder as they cross over Fifth Street toward Sixth where I sit:
“Hey UMMMMMMMM.” They laugh as usual in a unified, cruel teenager sort of way. Something about the sound of it reminds me of the cafeteria in my old high school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “How’s it goin’, UMMMMMMM?”
“Doing good, guys. How was school today?”
Mattie, the leader of the pack, looks down at me with a bouncing basketball as he passes. “Sucked, UM.” He adds for emphasis, “School sucks all the time.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
One of the girls takes a picture of me with her iPhone. “Smile, UMMMM.” And I do. Why not? I should flaunt the thousands of dollars worth of orthodontia my parents have paid for over the years. And my awkwardness with Michelle shouldn’t fool you, I’m a handsome guy and, I’ve been told by more than a few of the ladies, to have a charming smile.
I know this photo will end up on her MySpace and Facebook pages, along with the other photos she’s taken of me every day since the start of school about a week ago. How do I know this? She tells me as much as she walks away. I’ve never tried to confirm it, but she looks like the sort of girl that wouldn’t go back on her word. I might even be growing more and more famous in cyber space, for all I know.
Herm looks at me once they’ve entered the park across the street, and says, “These kids…”And I smirk along with Herm because, somehow, my time at the brick wall has made it easier to understand what he means by this. “Why do they call you UM?”
“Unemployed Man. UM.” I gesture to my sign which indicates my employment status.
“Ahhhh.” Herm lets out a chuckle. “That’s more intelligent than I expected.”
“Me too, honestly. That’s why I don’t mind.”
“Can’t argue with the truth.”
I really don’t mind the kids and their taunting as they pass. Honestly. They’ll see what it’s like one day. Well, maybe not. Maybe by the time they’re looking for jobs, there will be more jobs than people looking. Maybe their public school will magically prepare them for the world ahead. Maybe at that point, I’ll just be some sad bum who sat against a wall for awhile, some sad casualty of a world on a downturn. Who knows what the future holds, for me or them, but until then I just let them taunt and, at once, hope the same for them and hope for the better.
After some more side-noting, I look down at my watch and realize it’s close to 5:30, so I’m expecting my roommate Jay to walk by any minute on his way home from work. I’m sure you have a friend like Jay. Everyone does. He’s the guy-in-the-prison-movie-who-can-get-you-anything-and-knows-everyone type. Or, if you don’t like prison movies, he’s the captain-of-the-football-team-who-happens-to-be-the-class-President sort of guy.
Jay feels guilty because I interviewed at his firm a few months ago for an Analyst position and he was the Junior Analyst on the hiring team that took someone else. I don’t blame him at all. Turns out the guy they hired had five more years experience than me and had been recently laid off by one of the top firms. Jay said they had interviewed at least fifty people with the same kind of resume as that guy and thousands of comparable resumes had come through the slush. How could I possibly get a job with thousands of people like this guy interviewing for the same jobs as me? No, I don’t blame Jay at all.
But, he does feel guilty. And he’s my best friend. The combination of the two allow me to sleep on the couch in his apartment for free. It’s a pull-out couch with a Queen-sized bed and his girlfriend washes the sheets once a week, so don’t feel too bad for me. She also cooks, so I would be lying if I said I had it rough in that department. The set-up is not much different than the place we shared in college, except then we both had our own rooms and rarely worried about things like bills and schedules. And the girls we dated then rarely took over household chores.
Anyway, Jay gives me a nod as he approaches and then looks at anything and everything except me along Avenue A. He presses his back against the wall and glides down to sit on top of my suit jacket, but I don’t mind because he’s usually the one who pays to get it dry-cleaned. “What’s goin’ on, Bro?”
Herm left about a half hour ago to get home in time for Jeopardy.
“Not a whole lot man. How was work?”
“Not bad. Talk to any crazies today?”
“This one lady told me that the government stole her husband.”
He laughs. “Sounds like one of the more normal ones, actually.”
“She asked me to help find him.”
“And what’d you tell her?”
“As soon as I’m done with my undercover work, I’m on it.”
“She actually seemed really happy that I was willing to help.”
Jay usually takes a minute or two to stare at the street from the ground before getting back up again. Maybe he’s curious what my day-to-day feels like. I let him soak it all in without a word, hoping maybe it allows him to appreciate his position a little more. He stands and asks, “So you gonna be home for dinner?”
“Yup. I get off at 6.”
“Don’t forget to clock out.” He winks, as if he’s my dad or some other mature male figure in my life, and walks down the street toward the apartment. “Later, man.”
Jay turns the corner from Avenue A onto Sixth Street. Simultaneously, an older guy in a navy blue suit and Niagara Falls pouring down his face yells from across the street, “Get a job asshole.” I’ve heard that one before. In fact, I recognize him from yesterday. I hear this often from more than a few people and, really, I wish they could provide a little more direction. I even say the same thing in my own head from time to time.
You couldn’t hear over the bus that passed and the ambulance siren, but I yelled back, “Know anyone who’s hiring?” I assume he was already too far down the street to hear me. Or, his network does not include interested employers. Or, he just ignored me altogether.
I do have a stack of resumes in my briefcase next to me, just in case someone like him hears me and inquires about my qualifications. You never know when an opportunity will arise, that’s what my dad always says. I have other suspicions, but I’m willing to ride his optimism for awhile.
Meanwhile, if you know anyone who’s looking for some good conversation, you know where to find me.
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