After only three months at that crazy Livingston Street apartment, with muttering lawyers in the office below, a mouse or two for evening company, and with yours truly banned from my waitress friend and angel at the Chinese restaurant, I finally moved to a new place here on Union Street, right down the block from a neat coffee shop full of wise guy grouchy regulars who called each other names, all in fun, and even gave me a hard time about how I dunked my toast. They said it must be a Long Island thing.
These guys made fun of my working in a bookstore, too, calling me Worm, for Bookworm, because I always read during breakfast while everyone else—just four guys, really—poured over their newspapers. Mike, the big sanitation worker who sat at the end of the counter, looked at me with one eye straight and the other eye high to the right, and he asked me why the hell I woke up at 5:30, just to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to work at the bookstore on 13th Street instead of just taking the subway, which was only a block away.
“You’re crazy,” he said. “Me, I’d be getting my beauty sleep.”
“Which you need—in abundance,” said Henry from the other end of the counter, looking down at his many lottery tickets.
It was like that at the coffee shop. They made fun of me because I was from Long Island, and I guessed it wouldn’t stop because they were stuck in their ways, unlike yours truly, who was looking for big changes in life. Deer Park was no great shakes growing up, and Jeannette still lived there, so I moved out to the greener pastures of Brooklyn, and I had already found a couple of friends, one over in the city—Manhattan, as they say—and one here in Brooklyn, a guy named Tommy who lived downstairs from me. He gave me a hard time about Long Island, too, but he aimed his choice words at the Long Islanders and not at me so much—because I’m an escapee, he said. He was a grouch, too, but he went out of his way, helping me with my end table and TV when I was moving in, and then he took me over to the pizza place to buy me a slice and introduce me to the pizza guys. And then, as if we weren’t stuffed enough, he took me across the street to the bakery and introduced me to an old lady there who hardly looked up, and then to the man who worked in the back, and then to this girl Kelly, a customer in light blue sweats who Tommy later told me worked at the library. When she wasn’t on book duty, she walked in circles around the neighborhood. I wondered if she was older or the same age as me, 27, because she was kind of pretty, even though I had sworn off women for good.
Anyway, Tommy, who crabbed to me outside the bakery that the old man was stingy with the jelly in the cookies, continued with our neighborhood tour, making sure people met me and knew my name. “This is Frank,” he said to some old guys sitting outside on easy chairs in front of a building that Tommy called “the club.”
“He’s all right,” he told the men. “He carried his TV all the way from Livingston Street.” The guys on the chairs nodded, laughed, looked impressed, and offered me Biscotti, which tasted like rum.
So that was my introduction to the neighborhood from Tommy, and things were looking up, although Coffee Shop Mike was right about the longer walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to work every day—I guess because of the distance—but I didn’t care. I hated the subway.
After Tommy left me—to cook a casserole, he joked—I doubled back to see what the library hours were and to memorize them for the next day.
“Hi, we both stack books for a living,” I thought of saying to Kelly in her blue sweats, by way of introduction. “What a coincidence seeing you here at the library after meeting you at the bakery just yesterday.”
Meanwhile, I felt my poet’s juices flowing. I hadn’t written a good poem since my Long Island days and my trip to Italy last year, but being in this neighborhood was almost like being in Italy again. The guys at the pizza place talked Italian to each other, and looked up at the soccer game on the wall TV; the guys at the club were Italian and had the accents and red faces to prove it. So I worked on my first poem since Italy.
“The Men at the Club”
Oh, you men at the club
You don’t look like softies
You slurp at your biscotti
And dunk them in coffees
And your faces get red
When you laugh at each other’s jokes.
You like to kid around
And call people “jamokes.”
You nod to each other
About ‘dis and ‘dat
Calling this guy a prince
And ‘dat guy a rat…
That’s all I had so far. I could tell I was rusty because I couldn’t find any other word that rhymed with “jokes” except for “jamokes”—which those guys really kept calling each other, but I didn’t even know what it meant—so the middle of my poem was all messed up.
Since it was late May and warm, I sat sometimes on the stoop after work, like a real Brooklynite, and when the old guy leaned out the window of the next building’s second floor asking me how I was doing, I said, “All right. How you doing?” in real Brooklynese. The sun was warm in the daytime, and every night at about 6 o’clock that woman Kelly walked by in different colored sweats or shorts, although I didn’t really look at her until she passed, and she waved all over the block at people, and even at passing cars, but not at me. I was still a stranger, not a neighbor so far, but my first library trip might’ve put an end to this no-waving-to-Frank kick she was on.
Tommy sat outside with me before he went upstairs. He was still in his gas station clothes.
“The boss let me work on a car today,” he told me, squinting at the orange sky.
“Man, that stinks,” I said.
He glared at me. “No, it’s good. What are you, kidding? I want to work more.” He looked across the street. “I got to work. You know who Laura is, right?”
“She lives right across the street there. You probably seen her.”
“Well, I got to do better than pumping gas, buddy,” he said, frowning at me and at himself, and then stood up. “What do you say we go up to the park later, watch some bocce ball? Then there’s a place down Court Street where we can grab a beer.”
“All right,” I said. “But do they have cokes?”
“Yeah, they have cokes. Bring your friend, too—that guy you told me about.”
“Bill? All right.”
“How about an hour. Meet you down here.” He pushed at my head a little and threw the door open like he was in a big hurry to get upstairs.
My friend Bill came over the bridge about two hours later because he wanted to walk, so Tommy and I waited for him on the stoop. Tommy was kind of like Bill. He talked to people who walked by, but unlike Bill, Tommy never seemed to like who he was talking to. His dark eyes were cold when he joked around or asked how someone’s family was, and he didn’t expect much of an answer. But Bill, his eyes warmer and squinting into wrinkles, didn’t joke and listened and thought about the answers to how the family was, and then said something back to get the other person talking more. Still, he got along with Tommy right away after he finally got to us and sat on the stoop for a while. When Tommy found out that Bill lived in the neighborhood he despised, though, the one right over the bridge, he said he’d tangled with two Italian kids there who had beaten up his friend’s friend. “I hate that neighborhood—no offense,” said Tommy.
Bill just laughed. “There are a million people living over there and two guys make you hate them all.”
“I don’t hate them all—”
“Come on,” Bill growled. “Two people. Two damn people.” Tommy looked straight ahead and smiled.
It was too dark to watch the old men play bocce ball, so we walked up Court Street. On the way, a few people who passed by said hello to Tommy, and he gave big hellos back, but when one woman said a sweet hello, Tommy only said, “Yeah, hey Debbie,” and then he was quiet for a while. So Bill and I remained quiet, until Tommy spat out, “Nothing worse than busy-body friends of girlfriends.” Bill and I didn’t argue.
Tommy cheered up when we went into a little dark bar that he knew. I told them I only drank cokes, no beer or anything, but Tommy said beer was a lot healthier than coke was, so I broke down and ordered one. It was Bill who bought for all three of us, though. Soon, a guy at the end of the bar that knew Tommy bought us all another, but I was already buzzing after the first one. After I went and came back from the men’s room, carefully avoiding two chairs that stuck out from a table, there was another beer in front of me, freshly cold. Bill, who was sitting in between us, leaned over and told me the bartender gave us all a free one.
“Well, this is the last one, then. I don’t really drink.”
“You’re drinking now,” Tommy claimed from the other side of Bill.
Bill turned his head to me. “And it’s not right,” he said in a low voice, “to leave after a buy-back. So we got one more coming after this.” I threw him a horrified glance.
I paid for the fourth one and remembered looking at myself in the bar mirror behind all the bottles and thinking, “There I am, that’s me. That is me looking like I’m out of it. Just out of it.” I started laughing.
From next to me, Bill just smiled.
Tommy was soon talking to Bill about baseball, and then some softball league that Bill ran for kids, and then Bill’s neighborhood, and the places Tommy liked to go to when he passed through, like a bakery on Catherine Street.
“That one’s too crowded,” said Bill. “There’s a better one up on Mott.” But Tommy said he liked to stick with what he liked, so Bill nodded.
I leaned back and asked Tommy, past Bill’s head, if he liked this neighborhood or that one better, because personally I liked Brooklyn, but Tommy said loudly that he hated each one with equal vigor. “Yeah, vigor,” he said.
“Because people everywhere stink to high heaven,” he said.
Bill sniffed down at himself and at the air in my direction, and he said he didn’t smell anything, so Tommy had to add, “Not you guys. Not that bakery, either. They make good tea.”
“The tea doesn’t stink to high heaven?” Bill asked, but Tommy got up without answering and announced to the whole bar that it was his turn to take a leak.
While he was gone, I said to Bill, “He helped me move in.”
“He’s all right.”
When Tommy came back, I asked him, because she came to mind, about that Kelly girl and how old she was.
“Who? Kelly the walker?”
“Yeah, how old is … do you think she … is…”
“She’s about twenty-nine. She was one year younger than me all through school.”
“Oh,” I said. “Twenty-nine, huh?”
“That’s too old,” I said. “That’s like a two year gap.”
Bill laughed hard, looking straight ahead and clapping his hands together. “Gap!” he repeated, wiping at his eyes, and then he laughed hard all over again.
That put us all in a good mood, so we got up, took our final leaks, and paid tips. The bartender offered another free one and I felt my eyes get wide, but Tommy said we had to go. “Thanks anyway, buddy.”
Tommy insisted that we walk Bill home, so we followed Court Street all the way down toward the Brooklyn Bridge. We were all weaving away from each other and then coming together again in the middle of the sidewalk, or maybe it was just me weaving everywhere alone, which made it look like everyone around me was, too.
It was past midnight, according to the bank clock at the end of Court Street. As we crossed the street at Cadman Plaza near the Brooklyn Bridge, Tommy announced that he was hungry.
“Mott Street’s open,” said Bill.
“But it’s too long over the bridge to Chinatown. Let’s walk to the other one.”
“There’s construction. It’s closed,” said Bill.
“I go up the workers’ ladder. It’s an easy walk,” said Tommy, and I staggered after them.
It was easy to cross busy Tillary Street with a fuzzy head, even though there were a million cars turning our way, because I didn’t jump at every horn that sounded. There was a person inside me, a voice that I thought was me, which said, You can’t ever get hurt. But then another voice horned in on the conversation and said, You’ll get yourself killed doing this, stupid. Go home.
These guys are old, and I’m a ballplayer, I answered. I played high school baseball and basketball.
That makes no difference whatsoever, moron, the voice inside me continued. Don’t you want another chance with Jeannette? Don’t you want to write your poems?
I hate Jeannette.
Kelly, then. That girl, Kelly.
Oh yeah, her. Yeah, Kelly. I like that name—
We followed Tommy down a stone road under the bridge, passing a bar that Tommy and Bill thought of stopping at before looking at me and changing their minds.
That’s right, Kelly, the voice inside me continued. You’re both book people. It’s perfect. Tell her you’re a poet.
Kelly—I thought of her pretty eyes when Tommy introduced me.
Write her a poem. Slip it in a book on her cart. Tell her you like her and her blue sweats.
That’s a good idea. Or just press the note into her hand.
You’re too chicken for that. Be realistic.
“Over here,” Tommy called, because I had wandered straight while Tommy and Bill had turned. They were at a ladder that hung down off the bridge all the way to the ground. It led to a platform, which connected to another longer ladder.
“It’s just two ladders,” Tommy said. “One, two, up to the roadway. And then we’re off to Canal or Mott for some Chinese food.”
Bill looked at me and tapped me on the chest with the back of his hand. “You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m all right,” I said.
“You all right to climb, I mean,” Bill said.
I looked at him. “Sure.”
“No, let’s get a coke first. Come on, there’s the place we just passed.”
Tommy flashed an impatient look on his face, so I got mad and said, “No, let’s go, let’s go.”
Tommy told me to follow. He went and then I started to climb, feeling the cold rungs and noticing that it was easier to climb if my hands and feet climbed at the same time. The ladder seemed to be going backwards, tilting the wrong way a little bit the higher I climbed, which made it harder on my arms.
Getting up onto the first platform was easy once I got high enough where I could just crawl onto the wood. Tommy was already up and at the other end of the platform waiting, but I stayed where I was until Bill was up all the way. He had a look in his eyes, like this was an athletic event and he was in a zone, and then he looked at me like I should be in the same zone. I nodded a little and followed him down the platform to where Tommy waited.
“Down here, then we cross over, and up,” Tommy said, and started down another ladder. I watched how easily he got onto it, like he was just stepping down into a pool. I looked out at the East River and took a deep breath before starting for the ladder, but Bill pulled me back.
“I’m going, and then you go. And take your time,” he added while he turned around to ease himself down the ladder. I nodded, and because of the way he talked to me, I could feel my heart hammering. When he reached the bottom, he repeated for me to take my time. I heard Tommy say something and Bill snarled something back at him as I got onto all fours and turned myself around so my feet could find the ladder. I held onto the metal poles on either side and found the rungs with my feet, easing myself down until my hands could move to the rungs, too. The wind blew hard and I froze there, holding tight.
“You’re getting there. Don’t look down.”
“I’m not. I’m waiting for a taxi.” I cackled there for a while, squeezing the rungs.
“Stop that laughing,” Bill ordered from below, but I squeezed my eyes shut, felt the wind blow against me, and thought of the range of dates on my headstone. Then, I opened my eyes, saw my hand move, and felt my foot reach the next rung. All the way to the bottom, I watched my hands and felt my feet. The wind battered me twice, and Tommy laughed once, and Bill cursed. “Five more steps,” Bill said to me at last, matter-of-fact, and because his voice was so close, I exhaled and came down faster the rest of the way.
We had to climb up another ladder because a plank of wood like a wall stopped us. Tommy cursed. We found ourselves on a new roadway and walked along for a while. Then there was a sudden end to it, and we stopped cold and looked down from its edge to another roadway, which was a long drop down. My stomach did a flip and we all slowly backed away.
“That’s a big gap,” I said to Bill, but he didn’t laugh this time.
“Crap,” said Tommy. “Now we have to go back down and take that first ladder again.” And we were quiet while we retraced our steps. I thought of a poem I could write about this episode, but the only title I could come up with was “Death on the Bridge.” I wrote it in my head, free verse-like, on the way to the next ladder.
“Death on the Bridge”
Who’d a thought it,
That while I teethed like a baby
In my high chair
in the olden days
That the end would come, maybe
At the Manhattan Bridge
With me falling through the air
in a daze
Thinking, “Uh oh,”
And slamming into the water
Never to be found
With Tommy and Bill
My partners in trespassing
Pissed at me
and my remains
Because I couldn’t hold onto
a simple ladder
Bill and Tommy climbed down first, and when it was my turn, I crawled on my stomach backwards to get on the ladder again, trying to breathe deeply to get the fuzziness out of my head.
“I’m even crawling crooked,” I called down to them, stifling a laugh. Then halfway down the ladder, I stopped, frozen, and cackled uncontrollably.
“Come on!” called Bill. “It ain’t funny yet. Laugh later.” But I laughed even harder when he said that and hung on tight, hee-heeing into the backs of my hands that were clenched onto the bars. My glasses pressed into my hands, and they slipped above my ears and off onto my arm, but I couldn’t move and heard them slap off the ladder on their way down. “My glasses fell,” I called down.
“Concentrate!” Bill yelled up to me.
“Hey, Long Island!” Tommy called up to me. “Pretend you’re putting up the Christmas lights.” Tommy laughed to himself while I put my cheek against the backs of my hands, my laughter squeezing itself out of me. “Hot chocolate’s waiting inside, honey!” Tommy called, and I thought of my dad and mom at home, sitting on the patio with Dad in the summertime, having coffee and talking about nothing much. I pressed my cheek into my hands and bawled toward the Brooklyn side for about ten seconds, and then I couldn’t move. Tommy called up to me something about marshmallows in the hot chocolate and Bill growled to himself. Finally, I moved my right foot again and reached down with my right hand, making my way down slowly, stopping every few rungs to go into another laughing fit.
When I reached the bottom at last, Tommy told me it was about time because he was hungry, and we walked along a single narrow plank with no railing to yet another ladder.
“I think we passed the walk-a-straight-line test,” I said to Bill. “So maybe we’re not drunk anymore.” His face was set hard and he didn’t answer me.
This time I was the first to climb up, and we were on that same lower roadway that we’d looked down on from the upper roadway, so we headed, weaving again, toward the Manhattan side, alone on the bridge except for a couple of empty security stations. When we got close enough, we saw the Bowery Bank clock showing 3 a.m.
Lucky Garden on Mott Street was still open, so we ordered rice. While we waited, Bill remarked that they’d just charged us the “Lo Fan” price, meaning with tax added.
“Some places don’t charge their own people tax,” he explained. “Just Lo Fans—whites.” I leaned against the front counter and looked outside at the darkness. Tommy was mad and said something about the Lo Fan price, but Bill just laughed. “They don’t all do that,” he said.
I looked out into the darkness and felt my body as it leaned against the counter, thinking that this was me. I am here, I thought, at three in the morning, and it is me here, and I am with myself and these guys, and I almost died but it is still me here, living and here. And I felt young because I was inside myself, and that moment felt like it was frozen forever. Me, I kept thinking. I am me. When the lady came with our rice, I snapped out of it, and soon we were jaywalking across the huge Chatham Square intersection, though hardly any cars were in sight, just a bus on East Broadway and a taxi barreling our way, but too far to hit us. I watched my feet cross over each other and tried to make them point straight.
Tommy said something about going to the pool hall on 14th Street.
“Now?” I said.
“They’re always open. The night is young.”
But I shook my head, realizing that maybe I had to walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge and down the dark streets alone.
“Just a game or two,” Tommy said.
Bill said, “No, no, I’m done,” and sat himself down on the steps in front of a tenement on narrow Oliver Street. I sat down with him, and Tommy, after a few minutes of looking restless and mad, finally shook hands with Bill and said it was good meeting him.
“All right,” Bill said, and stared across Chatham Square while Tommy knuckled me on the head and told me he’d see me around. “Nice climbing, kid,” he said, and went on, spooning the rice into his mouth while he walked. Bill stared across Chatham Square.
We ate our own rice pretty quickly, and then we sat there quiet for a while, until Bill said, “That was stupid. I’m pissed.”
I nodded, but didn’t know what he meant. My head was clearing, except for a dull pang and a nauseous feeling that I tried to keep down.
“And I’ll say something to him the next time I see him,” Bill said.
We talked about other things then, mostly sports for a while. I kept thinking about it being time to walk home because I had to get to sleep, but Bill kept talking sports, and soon it started to get light. When I said again that I’d better be going home, he said the coffee shop on the corner was almost ready to open, and I should wait and eat before tackling anymore bridges.
“They serve eggs and toast and pretty good coffee,” he said, so we sat back against the steps and talked football instead of baseball. We watched it get lighter while more and more taxis, buses, and cars rolled through Chatham Square, and when the lights went on in the coffee shop, we took it as our cue to head over across empty Oliver Street and through its red street light, like its attempt to stop us meant nothing.
Lou Gaglia’s work has appeared in The Cortland Review, Frigg, Hawai’i Review, Oklahoma Review, and elsewhere. His collection of short stories, “Poor Advice,” will be available in 2014 from Aqueous Books, and his story, “Hands,” published by Waccamaw, was the runner-up for storySouth’s 2013 Million Writers Award.