A Loving New Year's Message of Hope (But What's That Stink?)
by Jim Knipfel
"Hey, already got yours--it comes to $13.62."
"Yeah, don't worry about it--I got plenty of time."
"Yeah, you got plenty of time. Me? I'm about to kick the bucket."
The discount liquor store a few blocks from my apartment was never very busy. In fact, this was about as busy as it got--just me with my cheap liter of white and an old man with his quart of vodka, jockeying for a position by the register, waiting to be waited on by the cruel, crude, frantic proprietess, who's husband was dying, who's business was failing and who's employees didn't give a fuck.
Having paid, the old guy turned to me, teeth sticking out of his craw as if an expressionist had designed his face.
"Yeah, I'm about dead. You know, I wake up every morning at five a.m., just to see if I'm still breathing. And if I am, I go back to sleep."
"Yeah, I do the same thing."
"Last night I got up three or four times to check. Didn't lose much sleep, though. I don't care. It's a terrible world, you know. Just awful."
"Don't I know it."
After I paid my $5.40, he followed me out of the store, just to make sure his point was clear.
"I'm on my way to the undertaker's to get myself fitted for a coffin. I'm 83 years old, and I spent my whole life here. I remember when Coney Island was a dime and buses were a nickel--and I could get anything in this place," he said, holding up his bottle, "for two bucks. But now? It's all shit. It's horrible. And a guy your age? You got years of misery and pain in front of you. It's terrible. Me? I'm ready to die. Hah!"
We stood there in front of the big front windows of Seventh Avenue Discount Liquor, knowing that we weren't gonna get so much as a scratch here.
"You know, I'm a bum, just like you," he went on, "There're no jobs, no work any place. I got kids down in Florida, and they can't find work down there, either. I wanna move down there, but it stinks even worse down there than it does up here. I've been all over the country--Tampa, New Orlleans, everyplace. And everyplace stinks."
"You talk different--I bet you're new here, aren't you?" he asked, leaning in close. I tightened my grip on the bottle.
"'Moved here four months ago."
"Biggest mistake you ever made. This place is rotten. It stinks like shit."
"Hell, I came up here from Philadelphia, and this place, I'll tell ya, is a helluva lot better than Philly."
"Yeah, I've been to Philly. It stinks, too. Everyplace does. I bet you're out of work."
"Everybody is. You know what I tell people? I joined the Army a long time ago. You learn something, something you can do once you get out. They don't pay you much, but it's something to do. I mean, you can't live on what they pay you."
"Well, they give you a place to live--"
"Oh, sure, if you stay in once you're done killing people. I used to live right around the corner there in an apartment that cost me ten bucks a month. Now I'm on social security and get $400 a month--hardly enough to give me the chance to keep myself liquored up. But what I tell people is this--join the army, become a doctor, and once you get out, you're all set."
"The army would never have me. I'm too fucked up."
"Yeah, because you're a bum like me. These doctors, I hate 'em. I started studying medicine when I was fifteen. And you know what? I saw right then that they were all crooks. Doctors kill more people in this country than anybody else. All they want to do is get you hooked on drugs so you keep coming back. And if you won't do it, they'll chop your pecker off. Or at least shorten it."
"That's for damn sure."
"I had these doctors after me. But I just stopped going to them and started eating, you know, healthy. stuff. And I've been drinking for the past fifty years. It's an important thing to do. My wife went to the doctors in 1966. She had a nervous breakdown because of the Kennedy assassination. I quit work to take care of her. You know what the best remedy is?"
"I have an idea."
"Vodka! Vodka with maybe a little orange juice. I don't care if my wife goes through two gallons a month. It's the best thing for her. And you know why?"
"I have an idea."
"Cause it relaxes ya," he said, grabbing my arm, "And anything that relaxes ya in this awful world is good. It's the only thing to do--the only way to cope with it."
"That's why I'm in this store every day."
"Yeah, at your age, you got a lot of years in front of you. And they'll all be terrible. I bet you live alone."
"Sometimes I wonder."
"What, you shackin' up with someone?"
"No, no, I'm married."
"And she's got a job?"
"Enough to take care of the rent."
"That's what you need. That's great. Someone who likes you and'll take care of you. We all need that. Like my wife. She never really got better, but I take care of her as' best's I can. We just keep drinking, and we're happy."
"Me and my wife have the same philosophy."
"Yeah? You're okay. That you are. Well, I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas and the happiest of new years'."
"Thanks. And good luck to you."
"Oh, no--I've had enough. I don't need that. You're the one who needs the luck. It's a terrible world."
We shook hands, and went our different ways at that, and I knew that it was going to be an okay day, for once.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the Welcomat. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.
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