Return to Strangeville

by Jim Knipfel

I was on my way home from the bar Monday night. It was the night of that so-called "Nor'easter," and Jay, the bartender, had been very generous, offering up shots and refills in exchange for funny stories. I stepped aboard the train, trenchcoat soaked through, hat dripping, head spinning just a bit, when a young man approached me, probably about my age, and started up a conversation. He told me his name was Michael, and before long, somehow, we were talking about his time in L.A.

"I was real lucky," he said, "I was out there just a short time, 22 years old, before I got the fourth lead in a movie."

"And what movie was that?"

"Oh, you probably never heard of it."

"I watch a lot of movies. Try me."

"It was a little movie called Private School."

"With Matthew Modine and Phoebe Cates? My God, of course I've seen that movie. Over and over again."

"Well, you remember a character named Bubba?"

"Fell out the window, didn't he?"

"Yeah--that was me."

"Well, I'll be damned."

We talked a bit more about his life since Hollywood, what he's doing back in New York. Then we reached our stop and had to go out into the rain again. When I got home, there was a message waiting for me from Pete Brown, an old friend from Philly and the world's biggest Bob Dylan fanatic, informing me that, for some reason, I was being discussed on some Dylan Internet newsgroup. He wouldn't tell me why, though.

That's certainly peculiar, I thought, as I opened a beer and put my frozen pizza in the oven.

The next morning, on my way back into work, I found myself sitting next to a Hassid on the train. Hat, black coat, long white beard. And, as usual, his body was bent over a small book open on his lap, which he seemed to be studying with some concentration and vigor. I paid him no mind, this being a common sight, especially on my way out of Brooklyn. I went about my own business--looking at my shoes and trying to figure out what to do with my hands--until we approached his stop at 14th street. It wasn't until the train slowed down and he started getting ready to leave that he finally closed his book, and I discovered that he wasn't memorizing the Talmud but rather hard at work over a movie tie-in edition of John Grisham's The Rainmaker.

I watched his back as he left, a few preconceived notions following him out onto the platform.

When I got off the train myself at the next stop, I hit 23rd street and lit up a smoke. As I walked down the sidewalk towards 7th, an old woman leaning against a wall called to me as I passed.

"Hey!" she said. So I stopped and walked over to her.


"Can I have a cigarette?"

"Sure." I reached into my pocket, and while I was doing so, I took a closer look at her. The Greeks would have called her a "crone." She was an ancient, tiny woman--just a dried up little husk of a woman--with four brown tooth nubbins jutting out of her lower jaw. She was dressed awful light for such a cold, blustery day.

I handed her the cigarette, and she looked hard into my eyes. As she took the smoke, instead of saying "thank you" or "God bless you, young man" or "have a nice day," as I might've expected, she belched out, "I don't want to live."

"I know what that's all about," I told her.

"I don't want to live," she repeated, a little louder.

Well, fuck it, I figured. I raised my voice a bit too. "I don't want to live, either, ma'am--but here we are." I kept walking. It was cold out, and I had to get to work.

"Thank you!" she finally called after me. I wasn't sure if she meant that for the smoke or the cheap support. Whichever, I figured.

"You're welcome!" I called back.

Somehow, with that little exchange, something had clicked back into place. Life was weird again, I knew that for sure now, and I felt much better about it all. I continued on into the office with a newfound bounce in my step. Well, not a bounce actually, more of a limp, but it was something.

Unfortunately, once I got into work and got my coat off and got settled and opened my coffee, I was handed the news on a shiny silver platter that my column had been cut back to every other week.

An hour later, as I sat there glowering at the phones trying to figure out how I was going to cover the rent--it had been tough enough before--Murray strolled through the front door. Murray is a radio producer who had promised me a show a couple weeks earlier, and I hadn't heard from him since. Granted, we were both drunk something awful at the time, but I remembered our discussion.

We made small talk for a bit, before I finally came out and said it.

"What the hell's the deal with my radio show, Murray?'

He stared at me a good long time, obviously trying to focus himself, trying to remember. Finally, he asked that singularly deadly question:

"What in the fuck are you talking about?"

I guess I'd figured as much that night in the bar, even.

"Never mind," I told him.

Yeah, life was weird again, all right. I always keep forgetting, always during the dry spells, that "weird life" is pretty much the same thing as "bad life." It was gonna be a helluva year, that's for goddamn sure.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Artwork copyright Bob Hires. All rights reserved.

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