Balloons, Beads

John Farris

“What you gonna be when you blow up? I bet you gonna be a balloon…kee kee kee!” That was Willie T’s salutation these days — delivered with an eye-rolling guffaw registering satisfaction with his chortling delivery of this epistilatory greeting. He had a whole stack of them, borrowed from some commercial he’d seen on t.v. and gussied up with his own punch line that he offered up like Hallmark Cards to any and all he met, shuffling them every week or so like homilies before suddenly becoming serious, conspiratorial — as he made his pitch for a dollar or even a quarter. Refused, he became piteous and, with an abject tug of a sleeve or urgent tap on the arm of the person he was accosting, would produce from a pocket some meaningless trinket, a bauble of costume jewelry or a fake medallion he would become proud again offering.

“Take it,” he’d say, his six-foot lanky frame bent at the neck like a condor in an effort to make meaningful eye contact. “Go on, take it — it’s yours.”

His offer more often rejected than not, he would return the object to his pocket and push off with a loose, loping stride — the grin on his face become vacant — though sometimes someone, recognizing he was what was rather unkindly referred to as an idiot, would give him a quarter or a dollar, refusing the proffered trinket; in which case he’d say, “God bless you, God bless you.” the grin wide enough now to reveal wine dark gums around a single, solitary cuspid. After a day of this that started when people were on their way to work he would make his way to the stoop of a leaning townhouse across from the women’s homeless shelter on Third, and park himself on a step in a long-legged sprawl. It would never be long before he’d be joined by a delegation of one or two women who, after ascertaining he had money for beer and marijuana, would beckon others and the party would begin, the women teasing, cajoling the money he’d collected out of him till their curfew, when he would send a lucky one off with one or two of his trinkets with the promise that tomorrow there’d be more where that came from.

sometimes someone, recognizing he was what was rather unkindly referred to as an idiot, would give him a quarter or a dollar

“If I had your hand,” he’d say, slapping such a one squarely on the behind, “1’d play it in a tournament…kee kee kee!”

Indiscriminate in his attempts at making contact in this corner of the world, and that corner not very large after all, his face was as familiar in the neighborhood as that of the huge clock in the spire of the Catholic Church between A and B. Simple and direct as he apparently was in his desire for intimacy, he would often in the course of a day approach the same people — storekeepers and the like — repeatedly; those with no sympathy for his condition seeing him as no more than another nuisance on the landscape to be shooed away — those with more compassion feeling here was someone from the Men’s Shelter — one of the many legions that had suddenly sprung up out of nowhere, resourceless beyond the little trinkets he offered — and so in dire need. Those that actually did know him knew he lived not in a homeless shelter but with his mother over the barber shop in the little building at Third and C and was — if not what a Brahmin might call well — sufficiently provided for by her and the modest settlement received regarding his condition — the brain-damage suffered at his birth. If those that thought him in dire need had taken the time to examine him carefully, they might have noticed that for all his cast-off appearance — the dungarees or perhaps gabardine pants that never quite reached his ankles, the shirtsleeves that never reached his wrists or were abruptly cut off at the shoulders — the jaunty caps and fur hats (fake or not) worn always out of season (including once even a Tam o’Shanter that, given his eye-rolling toothlessness, made him look like Popeye when cajoling) — his raiments were always freshly laundered, those requiring pressing always neatly so — his feet adequately shod. They would have realized that the gleam of his nut brown skin was the result of being thoroughly bathed and oiled, and that living directly over the barber shop as he did, he was never actually physically in need of so much as a haircut.

What drove him in his daily peregrinations was a yearning to be a player; the money he did collect often enough he used to purchase trinkets along Delancey or Fourteenth and Broadway for ‘his ladies’ as he called them, and the marijuana they loved. Though when sprawled ever so casually over the stoop of his favorite perch after a particularly hard day of what he offhandedly called his ‘work’ he might suddenly gather himself to his feet to relieve himself next to the little locust tree someone had taken great care to plant, and wipe his hands carelessly on a pant leg before rolling a joint, lighting it and offering it to one of the girls — they never seemed to mind his idiosyncratic meandering but accepted him for what he was as well as the joints licked and rolled for them. If he was a bit odd — so what? It was a crazy world. If there were azaleas and snapdragons inside the little iron fence that fronted the brave little house they did not belong to them as Willie did; in that sense he was their man.

“What you gonna be when you blow up baybee — I bet you gonna be dynamite…kee kee kee!” he could say to Olivia, the little British expatriate who found herself bouncing through the municipal social system like an abandoned rubber ball with its own special twist and she would give him the most demure smile, ever vigilant as she was for an opportunity such as this. Black as a berry, cute as a button and shy as a pansy, it was nevertheless she, who with the resigned patience of someone whose destiny was not entirely in her own hands would signal to the others that the party was on.

“Where’d you get this, Willie,” she would say absentmindedly, fingering the little Seal of Solomon.

“It was left to me,” he’d say, “down at the temple on Norfolk. I found it. That’s all I kin say. Why, you like it? You kin keep it — it’s yours…”

“No Willie — you know — I mean the weed…”

Affable as a pumpkin and every bit as round and orange, Casey — the lesbian from California, whose ‘ladies’ they might actually have been, would saunter up, hand in a pocket of the corduroy pants she usually wore. A bit of a bon vivant who could have been quite happy where she was were it not for the lack of privacy, she was usually too busy pumping hands with the new girls or the neighbors in appreciation of the cute dogs they walked to have noticed Willie’s approach and enthronement until alerted by a low whistle from the more detached Olivia. With her might come China, the dusky beauty deposited from the Bronx in contrast to China, who in point of fact had come all the way from Canton to run away from a take-out joint in Brooklyn.

“Sure baby — you gots to let me take you out.” Willie would say to her.

“Oh no, Willie — I don’t do take-out no more. What you got, huh?”

Out would come the electroplated bauble, though that China didn’t stay too long, being picked up and moved in by one of the young technocrats who had recently peopled the neighborhood. Willie had considered her his ‘star‘, and this sudden defection came as close to breaking his heart as anything he cared not to remember. It was Olivia who had taken her place — it was she who was his ‘main woman’ now.

Struggling under the weight of her own momentum across the Rubicon of Third Street, it was in this capacity that she approached him one day sprawled across the steps of the mighty little townhouse in his usual attitude of care-free repose.

“Hey Bay-be,” he said, his face lighting up like a June bug as she beat her way up to the little fence where she paused and then leaned hesitantly against it as though sturdy as it appeared to be, it might come crashing down, “How you doin‘? If I had yo’ hand, I’d put it in a money truck…kee kee kee!”

“Go on, Willie T,” she said a slow smile coming to her face. “You know you don’t mean it…”

Leaning into her eyes, his own widening in disbelief, he reached into a pocket and drawing out a little packet of marijuana, asked, ‘Huh — why don’t I mean it?”

Olivia’s smile deepened until two dimples appeared that made her look like a ripe blackberry as she took the joint he quickly rolled and offered her.

“Guess what tomorrow is, Willie T.”

Nickies, photograph by Ted Barron
photograph by Ted Barron

Remembering China’s sudden departure, Willie T drew back, puzzled. “Tomorrow? What — you ain’t goin’ nowhere, is you, Olivia?”

Enjoying the effect his apprehension produced in him, Olivia said, “Going somewhere? No, I ain’t going nowhere, Willie T — tomorrow is just my birthday…”

“Yo birthday? Well, looka there –” said Willie T, “looka there, looka there. Bald head — she ain’t got no hair…kee kee kee!”

In spite of the steady rain, the next morning Willie T was up and headed west past the great concrete mass of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer looking down as he did when on the lookout and just in front of the steps leading up to the sacristy he became aware of an object in a puddle of rainwater that turned out to be a rosary, not knowing that it was quite a fine one, the bloodstone beads set in tiny chased-gold cups that connected them to a delicately wrought platinum cross on which was stretched a remarkably detailed effigy of Jesus in an attitude of exquisite torture, the nails piercing its hands and feet, tiny pegs of emerald — encircled by diamonds as its crown of thorns. Picking it up from the facsimile of a watery grave, he held it up to the gray and vetting sky with a squint as he examined it before drying it somewhat on a damp pant leg and depositing it in a hip pocket, then continued on towards A — his spirit undampened despite the now driving rain that was making a bog of his friendly fur hat — meaning fake — that strained water onto his crown like a colander, sending it streaking down his cheeks like tears of quiet joy. Turning north onto the avenue, he squinted into the EAB where the little Jamaican guard — being one of those that knew something of the true nature of his account — waved him off, shaking his head vigorously when Willie T offered the rosary, thinking the fool hadn’t enough sense to wear a raincoat on a stinking day like this. Moving on at the guard’s agitated refusal, he peered quizzically into the Finast supermarket uncomprehending of the fact that it made no sense to most people to go shopping on a day like this unless absolutely necessary, and seeing the assistant manager’s disapproving frown, his arms folded resolutely across his chest, Willie T kept going across Fourth until he reached the liquor store. Here he stood in an accumulating puddle, wringing his friendly fur hat in front of the counter where a new clerk eyed him suspiciously, drawing back as Willie T shook himself like a wet puppy.

“Forgot your umbrella, sir?” The clerk asked dryly.

“What you gonna be when you blow up?” asked Willie T. “I bet you gonna be a balloon… kee kee kee!”

Unamused, annoyed by the deepening puddle, the clerk asked, “What can I help you with?”

“How you doin’?” said Willie T, “Do you know what today is?”

The clerk jerked a thumb towards a calendar posted conspicuously on a wall.

“No,” said Willie, “I don’t mean that…I mean, do you know what today is?”

A Lebanese only recently arrived from Detroit, the clerk’s suspicions deepened. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, today is my lady’s birthday…”

The clerk softened, thinking he was going to make a sale. “Oh — would you like to get her a nice bottle of wine?”

“Yeah,” said Willie, “you got a dollar?”

“Get out of here, now!” said the clerk.

Willie T reached for his hip pocket. “Hey wait,” he said, “look what I got.”

Threatened, the clerk moved towards a phone. “You’re on t.v.! I’m telling you the police will come if you don’t get out of here now!”

Seeing the crestfallen hang-dog look on Willie’s face and realizing he was not about to be robbed, he rushed around the counter, shoving Willie out. “Go,” he said. “Go! Get out — you come in here dripping — get out!”

“You want this hat?” asked Willie T, stumbling as he was being propelled towards the door.

“Get out,” said the clerk, “before I call the police!”

“I bet you gonna be dynamite,” said Willie, replacing his sodden hat and loping once more out into the rain with that loose gait of his, thin neck thrusting his tiny head forward like the condor he resembled preparing for flight.

The rain had not let up and he did not have any better luck as he made his way up the Avenue; the few people he encountered rushing past him under their umbrellas. It was pretty much like that all day, the sky not clearing, and after taking a tortuously circuitous route he only managed to reach Union Square where a few desperately intrepid sidewalk vendors of African masks of the airport variety, counterfeit watches, apples, oranges and grapes side by side with the trinkets he usually bought were still set up for business despite the lengthening hours.

Casting a sideways glance at these, he took up a stance under the overhang of Zeckendorf Towers grinning his toothless grin at the horde of homebound workers swirling around him, threatening to crush him as he tugged at this one or that one. The crowd went around him as though he were a boulder in a stream of leaping antelopes. He could have been a pusher. He could have been a pickpocket. He could have been an octo zillion things the city was full of with his hand out, another pitiful, whining beggar.

The rush hour was drawing to a close, the crowd thinning to a meandering trickle when the clouds let go again, fat drops promising to gather fury as they fell. Hurriedly throwing tarps over their displays, the vendors — conceding defeat — resignedly began making preparations to leave. These developments caused Willie some concern, unsuccessful as he had been so far in what he had hoped to accomplish. Agitated, arms flapping like the great bird he resembled and feeling that there was an opportunity here that could not be missed, he took off towards a bearded, kufied man; a purveyor of watches.

“Hey,” he said nervously, “hey — look here!”

“Not now,” the man said distractedly, packing up. “I’m leaving.”

Willie T, implacable, would not be deterred. “Wait,” he said, “What you got?”

“You know what I got,” the man said. “Go away – I have to close-up now.”

Hauling the rosary from his pocket Willie said. “No, wait – look what I got — what you give me for this?” He held it reverently before him in his two hands like the object of great efficacy it was.

Noting the cross, the man was turning away in disgust when from the corner of his eye he caught the dull red shine of gold. “Let me see that,” he said. When Willie handed it to him expectantly, he ran a careful eye over it and said guardedly, “What you want for this?”

“Will you gimme one o’ them watches?”

“A watch?
You want a watch for this?” the man asked, careful to keep any sign of his sense of impending good fortune from his face. He put the rosary in his pocket. “What watch you want?” It had begun to rain in earnest. He looked furtively up and down the block. Grabbing his case and motioning to Willie T, he lugged it to the overhang, displaying it as though it were’ all the treasure of the Forty Thieves or the Aztecs. “Which one do you want? Hurry up.”

When Willie’s eyes lit on a top-of-the-line Timex, he said, “You want that one? Go on, take it!”

Willie had expected to bargain. Seeing what excitement the vendor could not conceal, he realized he was in a better position than he’d calculated. Hesitating before accepting the watch, he gave the man a shrewd look. “And will you give me twenty dollars?”

“Twenty dollars?” The man drew back as if he’d been asked for Mt, Erebus. “Twenty dollars? Go on — take it,” he said with an air of reluctance, handing the ecstatic Willie the watch and the requested amount. Quickly closing his case, hurried off into the rain without a backward glance.

“God bless you,” Willie T said to the retreating figure.

“As I am sure you are blessed,” the man shouted back.

Returning to Third Street, Willie T saw Olivia in the dripping shadow of the homeless shelter smoking a cigarette.

“Where have you been, Willie T?” she said when she saw him.

“Hey bay-bee,” he said, grinning sagaciously, “just look here what I got for you!”

When she saw the brand-new watch as well as the proffered marijuana, her eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.

–John Farris