No Speak Engrish

The day before trash day, I am walking down Greenpoint Avenue, and there on the sidewalk is a junked bookshelf topped off with a potted plant tipped over on its side.
The next morning, someone has deposited the plant next to my front step.
Another day passes, and the guilt kicks in: I should probably water it, yeah? So I open my front door, and of course it’s gone.

The day before trash day, I am walking down Greenpoint Avenue, and there on the sidewalk is a junked bookshelf topped off with a potted plant tipped over on its side.

The next morning, someone has deposited the plant next to my front step.

Another day passes, and the guilt kicks in: I should probably water it, yeah? So I open my front door, and of course it’s gone.

The coordinates for the next tagalong come in from Woody: “We’re at Radegast. N3rd.”

Do I really want brunch in Williamsburg? (And is apple horseradish relish necessary?) No — but there are worse things out there on a Sunday afternoon that had been originally slated for tax preparation.

"Fifteen minutes," I confirm.

"Cool."

The first time I went to an address on North Third was back in 2010 — the day I met the musician, actually. I remember it being an ugly deserted day in October. Today it feels like the Williamsburg State Fair. Sunny and money, with tourists.

I take my seat at the communal table with Woody, the Driver, and Her Beau. They are already halfway through their meals and their shandygaffs. Woody’s phone is passed to me with a rather graphic photo showing in the display.

"So, this disease afflicts only one in every 5.5 million people," the Driver explains to me.

"Uh, I see." 

I hand the phone back to her, and she continues: “I sort of want to see the guy’s face. Otherwise how am I supposed to figure out if this is a turn on or not?”

The waitress brings over my eggs and potato pancakes.

"Me and Woody are still hungry," says the Driver. "I think we’re gonna get another brunch order for dessert."

The jazz trio starts up on my left. The Django bit is nice, but it sounds out of place with all the yelling and clanging tableware in the background. I remember a sax player once telling me he couldn’t stand brunch gigs. The tip jar here looks noticeably green, at least…

The Driver is still looking at the photo. “I don’t think this would work for me,” she says. “I mean, if they were stacked on top of one another, then maybe. But side by side, this would not be comfortable.”

The “Gypsy Toast” with pomegranate syrup arrives at the table, and the Driver carves it up into twenty or so little pieces.

"Dig in," she tells us, and we do.

Her Beau advises us to save room for ice cream. “There’s this awesome place around the corner, man. They’ve got burnt marshmallow today.”

An hour later, as we are waiting in line for the ice cream, the Driver starts acting strange. She sits down, then she stands up again and leans against the wall, then against her Beau. I watch her walk across the room and mention something to Woody, and they enter the bathroom together.

Back at the counter, her Beau orders a burnt marshmallow milkshake, while I get a root beer float. We snag a table and wait. Eventually they emerge from the bathroom, and the Driver sits down, holding her head. Woody goes to the counter and returns with a cone of rocky road.

"Oh my god I thought I was gonna faint," the Driver says. "But I really had to pee, so I made Woody come into the bathroom with me."

"Awwwwwwwwkward," Woody says, and everyone laughs.

"What — if I fainted in there alone with the door locked, you would never be able to get me out!"

"You’re probably dehydrated," Woody says to her.

"Did I ever tell you one time I fainted at PS1 while I was waiting in line for the ladies’ room, and the whole line collapses around me, trying to wake me up. And then after I woke up I still had to wait in line to go to the fucking bathroom!"

"Yeah, that’s New York," says her Beau.

Woody holds up his ice cream cone. “Damn, this thing was five bucks! It’s expensive.”

The Beau points out that it’s small-batch ice cream of the highest artisanal quality.

The Driver laughs. “Yeah, we know it’s good. But you know what else is good? When they sell those tubs of Turkey Hill ice cream, two for five dollars. That’s fucking good, too.”

The kitchen of the house where I grew up had a white door that faced the south edge of the lot. We were not allowed to use this door. I never asked my parents about it, but the door must have been drafty because I remember long strips of duct tape along its edges.

The kitchen door contained a small window that was shaded by a big weeping willow outside. There were three willow trees separating our lot from the Bendow’s. One of them was mine, and the other two were my sisters’. I can no longer remember which one I had claimed; was it the shortest? The youngest? (It was definitely not the middle one.)

When I was about ten or eleven, a landscaping crew came by to cut down the willows. I’m not sure who decided to do it — my father, or maybe the new neighbors who had replaced Bendows. We left the stumps in the ground. The dead roots of those three trees would not go quietly — they rattled and groaned whenever I pushed the lawnmower over them.

Looking at the south edge of the lot now, in Street View, I notice the stumps have been replaced by new trees and bushes. Nothing is left of my mother’s flower garden in the front yard. The basketball hoop is gone, too. If I switch to Satellite View, I can see a small shed where the swing set used to be in the back yard…

The nostalgia ends with a series of sneezes. It could be the pollen raining down on me. Or the dogs walking by.

I get up and walk out onto the pier, and try to think of antihistamine thoughts.

Since February I’ve been contributing to a document titled “Winter Gut Spillage” — it’s a journal that I share with a friend and no one else. There are no rules about how often or how much we write; we mostly write about new people we meet and how we feel about them and what we find interesting about them.

At first, the journal was a simple exercise in reading and writing…and trying to be honest with yourself. But at some point we began commenting on the writing. And then we began commenting on the comments, and the document quickly became cluttered with little asides and judgments and other fragments.

Yesterday, I was planning to write a new entry, and when I opened up the document I discovered all of my friend’s entries had been deleted. 

"Uh, digitally burning your pages, are we?" I wrote to her.

She replied that she no longer found the project helpful. I asked her why, and she gave me the following explanation:

I’m too sensitive to put my writing and my life out there for you to comment on, and I can’t figure out what you want me to say in response to your writing, since you kind of seem annoyed by my comments, so I’m dropping the mic and getting out of this bitch  :-)

My order of bigos comes with three fried dumplings — one filled with cabbage, one with potato, and one with mystery meat.
It is not much of a surprise, but today I’ll take what I can get.

My order of bigos comes with three fried dumplings — one filled with cabbage, one with potato, and one with mystery meat.

It is not much of a surprise, but today I’ll take what I can get.

Somewhere beyond New London, I fall out of range of the mother ship’s tractor beam and can unwind. The introductions, the pretense, the interrogations, the “reconnects” with old colleagues and clients and antagonists, the babble for the sake of babbling…it all exhausts me.

"I keep forgetting you don’t live here," one of them said to me. I take it as an indicator — that until my appearance radically changes (or a ring suddenly materializes on my finger), they will continue to think of me as the guy who will be the last to leave the office on Monday.

Meanwhile, I try not to get hung up on the things that didn’t happen — a return visit to Steve’s Kitchen, a continuation of the Chopin conversation, a one-on-one with my sparring partner

I hate the regret/guilt of not following up when I’d intended to follow up. Rather than stress out over trying to fit people in when I can’t fit them in, I need to practice the art of postponement in the form of invite:

"Come visit me in New York."

At old HQ, lai cha and a slice of walnut cake will now run you $2.90.

The owner of Eldo Cake House sits at the table behind me; his hair is grayer, and he looks thinner than I remember. He’s talking to a young Asian couple, in English.

"So move-in date would be end of July," he notes. "So all together is four thousand seven hundred. You can give me check now? If you want I can hold check a few days for you."

The couple assures him it’s not necessary.

"You Korean?" the owner asks.

I’ve lost track of when exactly the other half of the first floor of 36 Harrison Avenue became a beauty supply shop. Before that it was a store that sold Chinese candy and souvenirs. And before that it was still part of Eldo, with a model wedding cake in the window, cake boxes stacked to the ceiling, and a small table for four that took care of some of the overflow from the café.

By late summer, it may be something else. By then I’ll have forgotten that I wrote this as a reminder to find out what.


Jerry McCain & His Upstarts, “My Next Door Neighbor” (1957)
Excello 2103

The octogenarian turns to me and asks if I think another edition of his book is in the cards.

"I’m not sure," I say. "But someone else in this room could tell you if you really wanna know."

"Well," he adds, "if there isn’t, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It’s still been quite a run. I’ve had a charmed, charmed life, 張. You guys took care of me for a long time."

Farther down the table, they are talking about the tornado watch in St. Louis. The octogenarian asks if I’ve ever been to Hawaii.

"No," I say. "It’s a bit out of the way."

"Well, of course it is and that’s why I bring it up. See, I haven’t been using my condo out there. If you ever wanna go to Hilo, you let me know. And I don’t make that offer to just anybody, 張."

"Well, I’ll have to see—”

"You think about it."

"I will."

After dinner I flag him a cab. “You headed my way?” he asks.

"Nah, I’m just gonna walk to the T."

"Well, goodbye then. And don’t forget what I said about Hilo."

"Good night."

I make a quick detour from Hanover Street — a right onto North Bennet, past the playground, a left onto Salem, then follow the lights to Bova’s. The line of customers inside meanders to the point where a guy behind me asks the woman next to him: “You behind this gent?”

I pick up a bag of pizzelle and a pair of ricotta cannoli. It’s getting harder to remember what I used to remember in here. Was it an arancini? An eclair? I’m positive she doesn’t remember. So why do I try to?

Keep heading south. There was something about Ernesto’s, wasn’t there? A joke we had. And then Goody Glover’s on the corner — where I heard the story of her self-imposed exile. Or was it someplace else?

As I leave behind her old neighborhood, I recall something the octogenarian had said to me earlier: “The worst thing about Hilo is that it rains every single day. But the best thing about Hilo is that it’s sunny — every…single…day.”

At a table for three back at the mother ship, I listen as the Beacon Hill narrator recaps the question and ponders an answer.

"So…if money is no object and I had to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life oh my god 張 are you fucking texting?

I hold up my hands, which are empty. She continues to glare, as if I just did some kind of sleight-of-hand trick.

"Go on," I say. "Answer."

"I think I’d wanna have my own show on Animal Planet," she says.

There once was a fever called yellow / Irresistible to every white fellow…

— S.V. (I’ll have to ask her about this one.)

The ten-dollar open gym — so often a mixed bag, and yet I keep coming back. I’ve never thought of myself as having a gambling problem, but open gyms are like slot machines with reels that take three hours to stop spinning after you pull the lever. You have almost no shot at finding a jackpot team, but you keep thinking, Just maybe this one time it’ll happen

I’m here with the Kid, who is trying to recruit a team for the spring season. I don’t think he’ll find anyone today; the ones who are good are too good — towering former college players who are a division or two up from what we play. And the ones who are not good are very, very not good.

"Geez, some clunkers out here today," I say to the Kid as we wait to get on for next game.

"Yeah. But it’s less than usual."

The scorekeeper — a woman in her late twenties who is recruiting for her coed team — overhears us and asks why the league doesn’t enforce advanced play on the “advanced court” at open gym.

"It depends on the sign-in guy," I say. "Sometimes they might kick you off if you really suck. But most of the time they don’t care or they’re too nice. A lot of these people are regulars, so they don’t want to have to confront them every week."

"It’s kind of annoying, though," she says. We watch as a woman with knee pads flails after a ball headed out of bounds. "I mean, no offense but none of the girls playing right now belongs on this court."

"True."

"I get that they want to get better and all, but it makes it a lot less fun for the rest of us."

"True."

I point to a guy on the court who is about six-foot-four with a pterodactyl wingspan. “Hey, you need a big, right? What about that dude? He puts up an okay block.”

The scorekeeper shakes her head. “Nah — too many holes in his game. I want the complete package.” She points out a slightly shorter, square-jawed European-looking guy wearing a REVOLUTION IS COMING T-shirt. “What’s his story?”

"Haven’t seen him here before. Good technique. Seems a bit error-prone, though."

"Hmmm."

The Kid asks her to flip over a few more points on the scoreboard so that our team can get onto the court faster.

"We’ll see," she says. "Probably not."

The phrase the scorekeeper used — I want the complete package — sticks in my mind for a while. She moved here just a few weeks ago. I wonder how complete the package was before she came out here…

The Kid sighs. “Oh my god, this game is taking soooooo long.”

I glance over at the two clunkers on our team who are sitting up in the bleachers, out of earshot. “We still gotta figure out what to do with those two,” I say.

"Ugh. Don’t remind me."

"Maybe the turnout will be better next week," I say.

Mr. Kim at his workbench

Mr. Kim at his workbench

It takes me a good fifteen seconds of sitting in the chair before I recognize what I’m hearing in the background: Little Walter’s “Oh Baby.”

"Getting rusty," I mutter to myself.

"What was that?" asks the man with the gold shears.

"Aw, nothing," I say. "You listen to much blues growing up?"

"Oh yeah. Blues, R&B…"

"I used to play in a blues band with this guy who learned harmonica from Chess Records and Sun Records. Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter."

"Yeah? What kinda stuff did you play?"

"Ha ha, well, a lot of stuff that was easy for guitar, because I was trying to learn it at the time. So Jimmy Reed — "Bright Lights, Big City," "Baby What You Want Me to Do" — and "Bring It on Home" and "High-Heel Sneakers.” It was mostly acoustic; one or two guitars, and sometimes he’d play the harmonica through an amp. You said you used to be in a band, right?”

"A long time ago. It was a funk band. Back in the seventies, when I was living outside of Boston.”

"There was a blues scene there back then," I say. "Muddy Waters got some of his band from there. J. Geils was still playing blues.”

"Oh yeah, I saw J. Geils a bunch of times in the seventies. They would play right in the park outside."

"In the Common?"

"Yeah. Lot of musicians who got big started right there in the park."

The guy working chair two overhears us and interrupts: “Yeah! J. Geils, man! I fucking love that ‘Breakup Song.’ Awww, uh-uh-uh-uhhh-awwww.”

The man with the gold shears rolls his eyes.

"Seventies were good times," he says. "Good times with the band. I mean, we were serious about it, had a manager and everything, but just couldn’t make it work in the end, didn’t make any money. And then I moved to Providence, met my future ex-wife and that was the end of it."

"The usual story," I say.

He nods.