Photo by Jason Schwartzman
From a distance the crown almost looks like solid gold. But as I walk farther up 30th Avenue in Astoria, I can tell there is something not quite right about it. It is glinting, sure, but I realize the crown is made of curled paper. It’s from Burger King. I am now only a few paces behind the man wearing it, who looks like he might be homeless, a permanent traveler. He is towing a roller suitcase behind him over the scratchy concrete. He is dressed in a suit, not only his best, but maybe even his only clothes. He has no teeth. For some reason there is a water gun strapped to his luggage—a bright and cheery Super Soaker. I am charmed by the way he’s wearing his crown, semi-seriously, as though he is a well-known Astorian aristocrat.
There is less available sidewalk on 30th Avenue because of all the people eating outside on sidewalk patios, tablecloths flapping lightly in the mild breeze. The man’s passage is marked by derisive laughter as he makes his way alongside the diners. He does look ridiculous, but the tone of the laughter is nasty. I sympathize with the man.
I’ve been having a hard time recently, and just returned to Queens after my first good day in a long time. I joined a memoir workshop in Manhattan and I feel a little like myself again, to be writing, to read out loud. To remember other years outside the dark blur of this one. This year I’ve been mostly isolated. My friends live far away, my roommate is always gone, I work from home. Some days I don’t even speak to anyone, so small forms of human contact mean more to me than they ever have before. I savor the times when lost tourists ask me for directions. I ask the hardware guy to explain to me exactly how it is that keys are copied. I tell a man holding a New Testament that yes, I have a minute. Some days, this mild fill of strangers is enough, a low tide of camaraderie.
Today, though, I feel flush with emotional currency, a short-lived wealth begging to be spent and shared, so I go over to the man with the crown and ask, “How’s it going?”, a brief bodyguard while he faces the worst of the mockery coming from the diners. His face shows no sign of sadness or injury—actually, he’s smiling—but I want the diners to know they shouldn’t laugh like that at him. His answer is indecipherable—I can’t make any of it out. Still, I try my best to hear. After a minute, I understand the word “change,” so I give him a dollar. It has become important to me to hear what he has to say. I think I sometimes feel like this, unheard. He babbles again and I am on the verge of giving up, when I make out a single distinct phrase. Is it just random? Or does he somehow know what I need to hear?
He looks directly at me.
“Welcome back,” he says.
In the heart of Astoria’s Little Egypt is a big pharaoh. Over six feet tall, it stands beside the door of a cafe claiming to be the very first hookah lounge in America. I come here to write sometimes. Two fans that are branded as Wind Machines help with the heat. It is a few weeks after I saw the homeless man with the Burger King crown.
I have just about finished my Turkish coffee. The bottom is black silt. Someone told me once that a friend is supposed to study the remains in your cup to interpret your life. I glance back at my laptop and then there is movement by the door. The man with the crown is standing there, smiling. It’s shocking to see him again, that he walked into this random place where I happen to be. He starts touching the large golden pharaoh by the door. The movement develops into groping and frisking. I don’t understand what he’s doing, but it looks as though he’s investigating the pharaoh, searching for something.
All day the manager has wordlessly served me. When I arrive, he always turns the Wind Machines my way, gives me the best gust. We have never spoken but we share an understanding, I think. The place is fuller now than a few hours ago, and it is not just the manager anymore. There is a larger man sitting with his friends, staring in disbelief at the strange scene unfolding. It is he who rises.
“Get out! Get out of here!”
The man with the crown is undeterred. He’s still smiling. He tries to explain himself, but no one understands. I imagine that he’s looking for a lever. “Just a little lever,” I imagine him saying, if he could speak more clearly. One that will switch this world with any other.
“Fuck this shit,” the larger man screams. “I told you: get out of here!”
The man with the crown goes on his way, pulling his roller suitcase behind him. In the cafe, the larger man has sat back down. His friends speak in Arabic so I don’t know what they’re saying, but they’re laughing. They’re laughing like this is not a side of the large man they are used to seeing. Like this side is so unusual they can’t take it seriously—the screaming bully. But this is the only side I know.
After both encounters with the man wearing the crown, I feel like a scribe whose job it is to note and bear someone else’s slights. The man himself, though, is more like a regent too immersed in the wonders of his realm to let others bother him. Maybe it is a common affliction of one who works remotely like I do, to observe small irregularities of place and people, to absorb their little mysteries.
I haven’t met many new people here, and maybe that’s why I keep my eye out for him, as a way of feeling like I know something about a local character. A way of telling myself that I know this neighborhood—that I do in fact belong here.
I am walking down Steinway Street over a month later when I see the man with the crown once more. He is all smiles just like the first time, just like the second, though he is no longer wearing his crown. He has dark sunglasses now and he walks with a cane. Two keys dangle from some twine around his neck. The change in appearance is so extreme I stare. Ahead of us a father has paid for his daughter to ride a mechanical yellow horse outside of a bodega. When the man who used to wear a crown sees this, he instantly breaks into a dance, the same motion as the horse, and they all laugh: the father, the daughter, and the man without his crown. For a second, it’s like I can finally see inside his invisible kingdom. I smile too.
Jason Schwartzman is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. Before that he lived in Queens and before that he lived in Manhattan. He edits for the adventure magazine True.Ink and the writing platform Claudius Speaks.