Saturday, April 24, 2010
I had such a vivid dream last night. It involved, of all people, Art Tatum. Yes, back from the dead was one of the world’s finest jazz piano players, who, at one time, the classical composer Antonin Dvorak considered to be the best piano player in any musical genre. The fact that he was nearly blind was even more remarkable.
I was in some park and there was lots of grass and trees, green all around, and two or three people sitting in chairs next to me. There was someone I knew, but I couldn’t quite place who they were. Art Tatum was sitting behind a piano out in the open, but I don’t remember music. Just a big black jolly man in his youth with his fingers on the black and white keys. The whole time during this dream, I’m thinking, my God, it’s Art Tatum. Then I was walking with him and it was all so real and true and warm and beautiful. He grabbed on to my hand, not to hold it, but just feeling it. He said I had rough hands though I don’t think I do. We were somewhere walking across a bridge and then, like some curtain crashing down, everything faded. There was a lot more somewhere in there and I wanted to get up from the bed, grab a pen and paper, write it down, but I just laid there and soon fell back asleep.
If only we could lose memories of all the bad thoughts and keep our dreams. I’ve never been too into over-analyzing too much of what goes on in the subconscious mind. I think a lot of it escapes the world of science and reason. I’ve read Freud and Jung, but always taken their studies with a grain of salt. But still, after I woke up I couldn’t help but think of the meaning behind the dream.
I see a lot of blind people when I get off the F train at 23rd and 6th Ave. There’s a school for the blind somewhere around there and I see about three or four people walking around with canes. I think about them a lot and what their life is like. They tap their canes against the steps as they walk up the stairs and I wonder if they’re counting the steps, if a lot of their life revolves in numbers, steps to the light, steps across the street. Then I was talking to my mom the night before. I was asking questions about my grandfather who died when I was thirteen. I wanted to know what he had done in the military, where he worked afterward, where he was born. Then today I remembered that the Art Tatum records I have were my grandfather’s. I found them in a closet in my grandmother’s house years after he’d been dead. I’m also in the process of dictating an interview I did with a friend about living in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. My grandfather’s favorite music to play on the piano just happened to be Dixie. I decided to put on my Tatum records as a sort of homage to the old man and wondered if he was somewhere listening. I’m not really sure if I believe in a heaven or a hell. Maybe the dead just spend eternity in the land of dreams.
* * *
I ride the subway often late at night. Restaurant life is a world of odd hours and usually I don’t get out of work until one or two in the morning. The majority of the people on the train are drunk or asleep or sometimes just really tired and getting off of work like myself, but sometimes there’s just really sad and lonely people. I came across one tonight.
The train slowed down for a little bit. The computer-automated voice on the speaker said, “Due to traffic ahead we are being held momentarily. Please be patient.”
Down the bench my attention was diverted from the book I was reading.
“If I wanted to be patient I’d move to New Mexico! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
I looked over to find a middle-aged man, partially bald with the comb-over. He had a bunch of bags all around him and was pouting, a full-scale scowl painted on his face. He looked like a child that had just been told he couldn’t have anymore chocolate. He had headphones on, but I got the feeling there wasn’t any music coming out of them. His pants were high up to the middle of his protruding belly. He looked so lonely and upset with the world and was continually moving in his seat. Just couldn’t get comfortable. Even with all of this, I couldn’t help but laugh at what he said. Yes, I suppose the Southwest is a place for patience. Beautiful sunsets across open space and lots of time for meditative thoughts and solitude.
When I got off at Smith and 9th I looked back at the man. He was still scowling and then I noticed he also had a violin case. I walked towards the stairs trying to remember if I’d ever seen such an angry violinist and realized I probably hadn’t. I wondered where life had gone wrong for him.
* * *
I spent most of my Saturday afternoon in Coney Island. Went and checked out the Circus Sideshow, an old time ten act freak show. Human blockheads and sexy, large-breasted sword swallowers and tattoo covered fire breathers and Donnie Vomit providing much of the humor. It was a good time.
I visited the museum and walked among the antique remains of the old Coney Island (an old board with ride names like the Silver Streak, Shngrila Ha Ha, Roto Jet, Tilt a Whirl) which conjured up visions in my own imagination. There was also a really interesting exhibit about Freud who had once visited Coney Island and one man in particular, Albert Grass, who ran what was called "The Amateur Psychoanalytical Society." He and his colleagues were avid followers of Sigmund Freud. What was interesting was the story of how this man had a vision to reopen the Dreamland Amusement park which had burned down in 1911. This time though he wanted to make the amusement park a real living and subconscious play land of the dreams of a child, rides with ids and egos, he had all kinds of drawings that depicted the concept. Throughout the park would be a miniature railroad which would be called "Train of Thought." Came across another quote of his in a letter in which he was proposing his concept. "We will open our darkest dreams to the bright light of reason." Unfortunately, it never came to be, but I found myself engrossed in the various letters and drawings of his that they had on display.
When I got outside the barker on the small wooden stage was shoving a screwdriver into his nose. He then went into a spiel which he repeats for most of the day.
"They're here, they're real, and let me tell you what I'm going to do folks, for the kid in all of us, and really, we're all kids. I'm going to make you this special offer, that's right, for the next two minutes, yes two minutes, anyone that comes in will be charged the price of a child's ticket. Yes, two minutes, step right in. We have blockheads, we have Heather Holiday, the sword-swallowing sensation from Salt Lake City, Serpentine, the Mad Twister, Ezactamora, that's right, 10 acts in one, a real-life sideshow, all ten, incredible live acts. Bring mom and dad, bring the whole smorgasbord. If you're under three feet tall and you're an adult not only will you get in free, we'll give you a job. Last call! Last Call!"
I left the barker and then walked around the boardwalk and out to the Steeplechase pier. I saw an enormous, tough-looking guy, gold chains, 300lbs, bad tattoos, with a crew of others that looked like they just got out of Reikers. There were no children around and what is he doing, flying a kite. I then saw a Puerto Rican man dressed in a Harvard jumpsuit catch a sting ray. He explained to another Spanish speaking person how he was going to cook it like carne asada and the way to cut it. Next to him an old lady found no need for a fishing pole or gear. She had an empty plastic coke bottle, some string, and a hook. Watching her cast her line into the ocean was classic and I was pleased to find the couple standing next to me also saw the beauty in it.
On the way back I decided to go check out the Verrazano Bridge. I always seem to see it from a distance from various parts of Brooklyn, but didn’t realize how massive it was until I stood underneath it. Architecturally, I’d guess it was fashioned after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I stood there for a while, stared out at the water and the barge ships and Staten Island which sits on the other side.
I walked thirty blocks back through the Irish and Italian and Middle Eastern sections along 5th Ave. The bars were filled with Yankee fans watching the game. Looked into the Arab restaurants and saw the men way far in the back smoking hookahs and probably talking of the old country. I had to take a piss and for the life of me couldn’t seem to find a place to take care of my business. I wasn't even hungry, but I stopped in for a Sicilian slice at Original Pizza somewhere around 65th in front of the R train stop. Behind me at one booth was an Arabic woman in full shawl with her young boy. In the next booth was an old Italian man. The boy was leaning over his mother’s shoulder, some pizza in his mouth, curiously staring at the man.
The old man smiled and said to him, “How you doin’? Yeah, you like Frank Sinatra? You like Frankie boy?”
The mother smiled back, kind of shyly, but didn’t say anything.
It’s funny, women look at young children and talk in strange baby-like voices. I guess old Italian men talk to children as if they were another one of the fellas' sitting across from them at the card table of the local social club.
* * *
I woke up around eleven today and walked over to the bodega for some coffee and an egg on a roll. Anytime I go in there I usually end up in a rather lengthy discussion with Moussa, the owner. He’s Arabic by way of Chicago and Louisiana and has a rather interesting accent mixed with intermittent Arabic. He’s very animated and talkative and has a cast of interesting regulars coming in from the neighborhood: construction workers, drug addicts, young kids, old, Puerto Ricans, black, white, Italian, Arab; a wild colorful amalgamation of Brooklynites.
Today I notice he’s added a small counter/table outside. He needs a permit from the city for any real patio type tables so he made this one. Of course his only customer is Crystal, a rather large red-haired woman with a thick Brooklyn accent. She walks in and I get a closer look at her face and hands and then I realize she is a he. Later on I learn from Moussa’s wife, who spends a lot of her time at the bodega working, that Crystal has had the surgery for down there and often tells her of her sexual exploits. One involves another man that likes to pee on her. Ah, yes, I say to her, the golden shower.
“Fuckin faggot!” Moussa says to me.
Crystal is standing in the doorway. “Oh, lookie heah, wings and fries. Five dolla’s. Wow Moussa, I never soaw that. And burger and fries too. Dat’s a good deal. I always look in one direction. You know as a kid I oohalways fell into holes because I never looked down. I only look straight ahead and den you know one day I look up and say, wow, look at all of deese buildings, I didn’t know dey were heah.”
“Hey Crystal, don’t you got somewhere to go? And put your food in the trash.”
Moussa rolls his eyes and says to me, “She been here since seven this morning.”
I get the feeling he’s starting to think this outside table might not be a good idea. Then again, it might be since now he’s at least got Crystal outside. I just laugh as Crystal stays put, talking about her cell phone’s pour reception as neither of us is really listening.
A guy from the barber shop next door comes in asking Moussa for change. Moussa yells at him, “What, I look like a fuckin bank? I got no change. Get outta’ here. How you have a barber shop and have no change? I tell you, go to the fuckin’ bank.”
I part ways with my big coffee and Crystal says, “Have a nooice day.”
A block away in the triangle park, well not really a park, just a triangle with some benches where a lot of homeless and shifty-eyed people (most of them from the clinic across from my place) camp out during the day. I notice a man that I’ve seen a few times with a journal on the ground with handwritten words. This time around he’s reading a book called “23 Ways to Hell.” In his other hand is a bible in which he’s highlighting passages. I want to stop and ask him which way he’s leaning, but I think better of it. Seems like everywhere you look there’s the humor, the irony, and the sadness of life. All mingling aside one another. I take a little bit of each in and then I go on my way.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
“Hey John, the usual?”
“No, just give me a cranberry juice,” said Big John.
I was a little surprised since in the three months I’d been working at Leo’s, Big John had always ordered cherry brandy. Like most of the clientele that came into Leo’s, he was old and he was a heavy drinker.
I poured him a glass of cranberry juice and placed it next to the napkin full of breadcrumbs that he always saved for his birds at home.
Big John was in his late seventies. He came in every Sunday at eleven in the morning always dressed in the same black suit. With the nice red lapel and black and white striped tie he looked like he had just walked out of church. Though he was Irish, I think he was far from being the religious type. Hunched over, he was about six-two and he probably weighed at least two-fifty. His head was enormous. It looked like a massive watermelon. When he laughed you could see his decayed and jagged teeth on full display. His cheeks and eyes were all baggy and puffed out and all the fat seemed to reside in his double chin.
“You wouldn’t believe what happened to me last night,” said Big John.
“Oh yeah, what’s that?”
“Well before I went into bed I went into the bathroom. So I was peeing and at first everything seemed normal. Then, all of a sudden, this big gush of blood comes pouring out of my dick. I mean it was enough blood to fill that catsup bottle over there. Hah! I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never seen anything like that. All that blood floating around in the toilet. I tell you, it was dis-gusting.”
“Jeez, did you call the hospital?”
“You’re damn right I called the hospital. Jesus Roy! I lost a pint of blood! The ambulance came and they took me to the emergency room. They had all these tubes going into my arms. Amazing!”
“Doctor says I’ll be all right though. It was just a little hemorrhage. They gave me all kinds of drugs. Now I feel like a drug pusher. A drug pusher! As long as I stay away from the booze I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.”
Big John lowered his eyes into the Sunday newspaper and I walked back to the end of the bar and straightened up the bottles in the cooler.
About a half-hour later Jack walked in. Jack was another one of the Sunday, suit-wearing old-timers. He was a little younger than Big John and always wore a blue suit with a black top hat that had a red feather tucked into the ribbon.
He sat down a few stools over from Big John and I put a mug of Bud down in front of him.
“Hey Roy. Hey, how goes it John?”
“Ugh,” grumbled Big John, not looking up from the paper.
Jack was a retired card dealer. He did fifteen years in Vegas and then twenty up in Atlantic City. He also had a penchant for always passing out at the bar. The strange part about it was that it only happened when he was on the fourth beer. All of the sudden, you’d look over and he’d have his face flat on the bar, his big white mustache right in the spilled beer, snoring away. I’d usually let him sleep for a couple minutes and then I’d bang my fist down on the bar and say, “Wake up Jack! This ain’t a hotel!” Every once in a while there’d be a few people in the bar and they’d laugh and then Jack would open his eyes, lift his head, and in one fluid motion, he’d grab the glass of beer and resume drinking.
“Say, Roy, get John a drink for me,” said Jack.
“I’m not drinking!” screamed Big John.
“What’s wrong John, you going soft?” goaded Jack as he winked at me.
“Why you…I’m sick of your talking, Jack. You know, you never know when to shut up.”
Big John’s eyes looked they were going to pop right out of that huge head of his. I never could quite figure out what Big John had against Jack. Maybe it stemmed from something way back in the day. He turned towards the window and covered himself up with the paper.
“Oh, come on John.”
“Just shut up, Jack!”
Jack looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. I thought about filling him in on the whole blood incident, but I figured it really wasn’t any of my business. I walked back to my stool in the corner and looked out the window. Families all dressed up were coming back form church. People were jogging and walking their dogs. I noticed Jack had a deck of cards in front of him and was shuffling them.
“Hey Roy, come over here and shuffle this deck.”
Jack had done his card tricks for me a handful of times. I didn’t mind. They were pretty amazing and even after carefully studying his hands, I still had no clue as to how he pulled them off.
I shuffled the cards about four times and then put them down on the bar. Jack had me cut the deck and then he shuffled them once.
“Here he goes again with those damn card tricks,” grumbled Big John. I noticed he had now moved from the Metro section to the comics. Maybe that would lighten his mood up a little.
Jack got up from his stool and walked over to the far side of the bar.
“Now I’m going to call out each card as you flip it over. There’s no way I can see the cards from where I am.”
“All right,” I said.
Jack yelled out for the Four of Clubs. I turned the first card over and it was the Four. He then called out for the King of Hearts. I turned the card over. Sure enough, it was the King. Jack stood by the bathroom, moving farther back, smiling as he tipped his hat. “Eight of Diamonds…Queen of Spades…Six of Hearts.”
I must have gone through half of the deck and he knew every single card.
Jack walked back to his stool. “I got another one for you.”
He shuffled the cards and I watched him intently, waiting for any slight of hand movements. Nothing.
This time he had the trick worked out so that every time I pulled four cards in a row they’d out as a straight. The whole damn deck came out straights.
“So, you were a card shark or a card dealer?”
Jack smiled, drank down his beer, and said slyly, “Dealer.”
“Well, if I ever make it out to Vegas I think I’ll stick to the slots.”
Roger, a Korean War vet who owned a refrigerator repair shop, walked in half way through the trick.
“I knew this guy who was a card shark in Vegas. He got caught so many time that he started dressing like a woman just to disguise himself. Even got away with it for about a year before they found out.”
Big John, who had been awfully quiet, waved me over. “Roy, get me a brandy.”
“You sure John?” I asked.
“Damn it, one drink isn’t going to kill me.”
I figured he was right. Besides, you get to that age with that kind of liver and
really, what difference does it make? I placed the drink down on the bar.
“Say, I’ve got a trivia question for you,” said Big John.
“All right, shoot.”
“How does a baseball team with no men on base hit a grand slam?”
I thought about it for a minute, but couldn’t think of the answer. “I don’t know John.”
John kept me hanging for a minute with a big jowly grin. His eyes got all big and electric as he prepared for the punch line.
“It’s a girl’s baseball team. You get it? It’s all girls on base. It’s true. I saw it once when I was a kid. Up in Pennsylvania. All the men were in the war so they had girls playing. Oh man, haha, a girl’s baseball team.”
“Yeah, that’s a good one.”
Down at the end of the bar I heard something that sounded like a cat choking on a hairball. I looked over and Jack was passed out, the side of his face drowning in the beer foam. Big John shook his head in disgust and said, “Just look at him.”
Despite the awful sound coming out if his nose, Jack looked so peaceful, like a little baby. He was far far away in dreamland. I walked over and motioned to slam my fist down, but at the last minute I held back. I figured I’d just let him stay like that for a while.