It’s January 2, 1997. I head out to the corner bodega to buy coffee and a New York Times. I wear a robe and slippers. I am still hung over from New Year’s Eve. It is the time of year when the frozen ground in Williamsburg forms an admixture of leftover snow and dog turd matter.
I say this because dog curbing is optional in this section of Brooklyn. Besides the movement to stop the plan for building incinerators, the freedom to not pick up one’s dog’s poop is the only issue on which hipsters and locals can agree.
At this point in the late 1990’s, your garden-variety turd-enablers in Williamsburg mostly comprise second-wave gentrifiers, college dropout arrivistes who have left the confines of higher education, buckled under the pressure of paid-for private college tuition and a lack of grades. On North Fifth Street between Driggs and Havermayer, however, the culprit is a local resident whom I have nicknamed “Joey Bagodonuts,” so named because he always has—you guessed it—a bag of donuts in one hand, his pony-sized dog leashed to the other.
Each day Mr. Bagodonuts would deep-throat his glazed scone while his black labrador uncorks a dump on the southern side of the sidewalk, less than 30 feet from my bedroom window. Even this winter morning, with the temperature in the low 20s, the stench of the pile would waft up into my room. Later, I would learn that Laura Cantrell, the waifish alternative country singer and WFMU radio host, had also lived in my apartment, perhaps even slept in my bedroom. I have wondered over the years whether she, too, became a “shit-kicker” on her morning walks to the subway.
The music in the bodega is above average this morning: sitar, drums, not the usual call-to-prayer fare. And as always, there is a queue of men who have something to do with the operation of the store, but do not respond to any questions that pertain to the operation of the store.
I point out to Kaleem, whom I assume to be the proprietor, that there is no New York Times. Again. I approach the storekeeper to ask him about this situation.
“No Times,” interjects one of the usually reticent hangers-on who leans against the ice cream freezer. “No Times.”
I nod, but I want more information. Yesterday, I had bought a Daily News for the fourth day in a row, and could fob the purchases off to variety and getting up late on my day off, but five days in a row with a paper I can read over one cup of coffee is unacceptable.
Kaleem sees this pain in my eyes, and is maybe frightened by my appearance in a robe and slippers. He responds with a Borgesian tale of panel trucks and sidewalk disputes.
“Problem with the driver,” he says. Something about returns and not getting the right edition. “Now we get charged for it,” he says, “even though we want something else.”
I flip my Negative Capability switch on, slurp my sugary coffee and pick up another Daily News. Later that day, he offers a tutorial of the system of pay-back returns, how the driver withheld money from them.
I will learn a couple years later that the bodega’s main source of income is a brisk after-hours crack-cocaine business, the transactions performed through a revolving plastic door. I will think later that for a drug front bodega manager to go to such lengths to offer the Times, let alone explain to one of his non-crack-cocaine-buying customers the vagaries of return paybacks and editions, is oddly heartening.
On the way back home, I notice that the Witchcraft Supply Store is open early. This is the name my roommate and I have given the sign-less store that sells incense and other Wicca paraphernalia in a dark retail space.
I walk in. The proprietor, whose name I know to be “Isis,” sits in the back among bags of herbs and homemade candles. She is, in no particular order, flirtatious, six feet tall, in possession of blonde dreadlocks, draped over with two black shawls, and from New Zealand. And a witch.
She greets me and asks if I need help with anything.
I do, I say. “I want to cast a spell on someone. A curse.”
“What kind of spell?”
“It’s for this guy down the street who won’t pick up after his dog.”
Isis stands up. “I have seen that guy,” she says, as she looks through a wall of tiny drawers of herbs and roots. I realize there’s a recording of whale calls playing from her tabletop boombox.
“Here,” she says. I smell her Rose’s Milk as she walks toward me with what looks like a dime bag. “Sprinkle this on the ground where the dog shits. It shouldn’t happen again.”
The bag costs three dollars, no tax included.
I step out with my Daily News, coffee, and spell-casting herbal bag. And I see Mr. Bagodonuts stand beside his dog, in flagrante de poopo, its torso arched in front of my house.
Maybe Isis’s witchcraft talk has given me courage. Maybe it’s the hangover. Whatever the case, I confront Bagodonuts with my best faux tough guy Brooklynese.
“Ya gonna pick that up?” I say. Instead of, say, cowboy boots, I’ve got my toasty LL Bean Wicked Good Scuffs. They make cute splashy sounds.
Bagodonuts doesn’t even look at me. He throws down his cigarette, faces me for a second, and starts up the steps into his mother’s house.
He says he didn’t hear me. I repeat my question. He asks if I’m kidding. He keeps walking.
Then he says it.
“Go fuck yourself into your own ass,” he says, and he goes into his mother’s house.
Go fuck yourself. Into your own ass. I’m dumbfounded. I know what it means to “fuck myself.” I also know what it means to put something “into my ass.” But to combine these sentiments, these acts, seems so bizarre, so beyond the comeback pale, I realize I’m dealing with someone who cannot be reasoned with. And I’m frightened. Bagodonuts scares me now. His dog is big. His dog is looking at me. The steam from his poop pile wafts toward me.
I will learn later as a teaching assistant in an English as a Second Language class that non-native speakers of English such as Bagodonuts often mix up their prepositions, especially prepositions of direction and place: to, on, onto, in, into. “Into” connotes a movement toward the interior of a volume. The “volume” here would be my “own ass.”
I sprinkle the spell-seasoning in front of my house that afternoon. It doesn’t work. I do not ask Isis for my money back.