It’s a cold morning, two weeks before Christmas, and I’m walking across 57th street on my way to work when I noticed him up ahead, shuffling along the curb — silver hair, blue jacket and white sneakers – not dressed for the weather. I probably wouldn’t have given him a second thought, but he reminded me of someone I knew from the literary scene. As I pulled even, I realized I was mistaken. His hair was dirty yellow, unwashed. The guy was probably homeless. Fucked-up world, I thought, and swung into the front door of Coliseum Books.
The bookstore was incredibly busy; there were endless lines of customers stocking up for the holidays. We were amazed at the crap they were buying, but it made the owner happy; it was stuff he wouldn’t have to return to the publishers when the season was over. But it was exhausting; I looked forward to getting away from all the noise and confusion during my lunch break.
Jim Feast stopped by the store, rescuing me, and we went to a neighborhood deli. We were in the middle of fixing up a manuscript he called Neo Phobe, and the give-and-take was a lot of fun. We bought sandwiches and coffees and headed for a back booth that was illuminated by a string of blinking Christmas lights stapled to the ceiling.
And then I saw him again, sitting at a small table, head cradled in his arms, zonked out. A large Coke teetered precariously near his elbow and, sure enough, the next thing you know he’d knocked it to the floor, where the reddish-brown liquid puddled like blood. Poor fucker, I thought, and then poor fuckers for the counter guys who were going to have to mop up the mess.
So Jim and I got down to business—beating a piece of writing into shape. And then, from out of nowhere, he’s in our face yelling at us: “Buy me a sandwich buy me a drink give me money!”
“Jesus,” I say to the dude, “We’re trying to have a conversation here—get ahold of yourself!” but he’s cursing and wind-milling his arms in every which direction like a helicopter going down.
“Back off!” I shout at him, but it’s like I’m not really there. And then I get a thought—a truly inspired stupid thought—a thought I’ve carried around in the back of my brain for oh so long. You see, I kinda look like a Vietnam vet. I’ve got long stringy hair and a gray mustache, and I’m certainly old enough to have gone, though I didn’t because I didn’t want to kill anyone back then—or now, for that matter. Anyway, I figured if some young punk jumped me some dark night I’d act flipped-out Nam-style and rant that I’d offed tons of geeks and I’d do him, too. But I’d never had to go there—till now. So I shout, “I fuckin’ killed guys in Nam and cut their ears off and strung ’em on a necklace, so get the fuck out of my face!”
Whoa, and the dude stops dead still, rolls up a sleeve exposing a bony arm, Auschwitz thin, with a tattoo of some kind of parachute device on it and says, “Brother, I was there, too. 82nd Airborne. You?”
And I’m floored once again by how the heavens work and how big an idiot I am, and I’m wondering what the hell I’m gonna say to this fella, but it’s all moot. The dude wanders back to his table and passes out again. The drama’s over and I’m left with an indefinite period of time in which to appreciate the Great Playwright’s amazing sense of humor.
Merry Christmas everyone.