Last Monday, I helped Fran – a theatre director – transport an old refrigerator from a storage unit to a theatre on the city’s west side. It was a rediculously easy task – $40 bucks to load, wheel, unload. The only wrinkle in the job was that Fran and I had to wait about 30 minutes outside the theatre for the next break in rehearsal before we could load in. But that wasn’t a drag at all, because Fran was very pleasant, very appreciative, and an easy one with which to shoot the bull – although she looked very tired from running around, her curly hair sprawling out in every direction. It was another supreme effort on top of decades of piecing together one low budget theatre production after another.
“As you can tell,” said Fran, pointing to the fridge, her hair springing with the movements of her body, “it’s just a fridge. But I just don’t have the upper-body strength anymore. Oy, I’ve been doing this so long, this avant-guarde black box theatre stuff. When I was young, it’s all I wanted to do. I mean, I still love it, but now, I don’t know what else I could do. You just think it’s gonna end up differently, you know? But to the world out there,” she points out to the city, “I’m just the old lady that works at Trader Joe’s.”
At the rehearsal break, I wheeled the fridge down a narrow hallway, then another, then another, then into a little room that was painted black, with a jerry-rigged light grid over a small stage, and a handful of cushioned seats that barely qualified the room as a theater. I’d been in many of these theaters across the city. I’ve performed in many and had my owned plays produced in them. I took a look at Fran and saw the millions of things she had to take care of – fluttering about her wild, curly hair – before the curtain went up. There was so much to do before she could sit back and appreciate the creativity she spearheaded, and see in front of her everything that makes the loud chatter and long lines and long hours of Trader Joe’s bareable. Then the play will close as quickly as it opened, and the hunt for another reason to make it all worth it would begin again.
Fran gave me the $40. First, I adamantly refused to take the money, but Fran insisted. Then, I half-heartedly refused it, but she insisted again. Then I pocketed it quickly, said good-bye, swiftly made my way down one, two and three narrow hallways – out of the darkness and onto the street before I tried to refuse the money again. What can I say, I needed $40.
I’d sneezed off and on that afternoon, and by nighttime my throat was scratchy. By Tuesday morning I could barely hold my head up. I had a raging cold. No big deal, but it included shuttering chills and shortness of breath. My head felt like it was floating in some inland sea, tied to an old, unused pier, beating against the soggy algea-covered wood – softly, yet consistently. I couldn’t focus or eat much. I just lay in bed mostly, noting the patterns of barking by all the dogs of neighbors. The tenent below me would jam to heavy metal at 10am every morning. Every afternoon, the super of the apartment building next door from mine would venture out to the trash cans (my window opened toward the airshaft that my building and his shared) and separate the trash from the recycling. Of course he had recepticals specifically for trash and for recycling, but his tenents never paid much attention. So every afternoon the super cursed to high heaven over the fact that he worked hard to keep things in order but everybody f$%^ing sh!ts on him. EVERYDAY F$%^ING DAY! Sometimes his wife would help him and she would bare the brunt of his dissapointment. But after she’d had enough of his hideous and juvenile screaming, she would quietly leave him to pick up the trash, alone. When he finally stopped shouting, the silence would pound in my ears. But the motor of my fridge would eventually kick on and solved that little issue.
It’s not good for me to be alone too long, especially when I’m sick. The internet calls to me like a siren, and the helpless sailor in me can’t resist the urge to google all my symptoms. After a few moments, I’d officially diagnosed myself with the new SARS. I’m not a hypochondriac by nature – just by media – but it’s hard not to feel an itch if you’re reading about fleas. To get my mind off dying alone from the newest deady epidemic, I would try to read…but when did, I though about Fran. I tried to write…but I thought about Fran. I tried to mindlessly bang out chords on my guitar…but I thought about Fran. I realized I’d had Fran on my mind since Monday. Then I thought about being fifty and working at Trader Joe’s. You’re just sick, I said to myself, your emotions are playing tricks on you. I felt better, but then I reminded myself, Oh, that’s right, you have the new SARS. There is no hope, you will die, and die alone. They won’t even find you until you’re a ripe compost heap. But hey, you won’t live to work at Trader Joe’s! There simply was no way out, I was going to die from the new SARS, alone – but I’d chosen this path, I chose for it all to end this way.
Friday I started feeling better. I decided to move my bones a little. I took a short walk, got groceries. Then I met up with a few friends in the afternoon. The little bit of human interaction brought out of death’s grasp and soon I made the revelation that I was on the mend. My friend’s laughed at me after I told them about my near death from the new SARS. I didn’t mind, their laughter told me I was ok. Their laughter also told me they were just like me. Later on the afternoon, I not only felt better, but started feeling good. I had a spring in my step and I bounced home in a better world – a world where Fran wans’t just an old lady working at Trader Joe’s, but was rightfully one of the real artists of the city – doing it no matter what, telling stories in the dark spaces of the jungle, resisting the urge to follow the rumors of untold riches uptown in El Dorado.
When I got back to my place, my nieghbor James was already home. James worked at the Brooklyn Navy shipyards. He was out the door most mornings by 5am and got home around 4pm. He’s not an especially big man but he has a booming voice. I could hear him through the wall. He was just beginning his nightly drunk – shouting gaily at his son, who I could also hear beyond the paper thin walls.
“My son’s a smart f$%^ing kid, man,” James told me once, out by the back entrance of our building. He and I always enter through the back, at the dead end of 76th street in Brooklyn. “I’m real proud of him. He’s gonna do really well, better than me, anyway.”
Friday night was like most. His jovial shouting transformed into spiteful yelling. His son yelled back for a bit, then slammed the door and left. Then James descended to the regular bull-in-a-China-shop babbling rage. Finally, he mumbled belligerently to himself until he passed out. Then he did it all again on Saturday.
James is a good guy. Every now and then he comes knocking on my door to offer me booze or a joint. After I decline both, he fakes surprise, then fake remembers that…
“Oh, that’s right, you don’t drink, do you? Smoke either? Me, I gotta do somethin’ to unwind. Hey listen, I just wanna thank you for being a good neighbor.”
I don’t hold James’ drunken tirades against him. He works hard day in and day out, at a hard job. Shipyards are tough places, you gotta do what you gotta do to cope. I’m sure he’ll knock on my door again, sooner or later. Things tend to happen over and over at dead ends.