You’re Supposed to Make Mistakes

by

12/31/2006

7th Ave. & W. 12th St., NY, NY 10011

Neighborhood: West Village

“Just like a boxer in a title fight you’ve got to walk in that ring all alone

You’re not the only one who’s made mistakes but they’re the only things that you can truly call your own”

–Billy Joel

I was looking at some apartments with my realtor, Harriet Loshin, just west of Union square, near west 12th street. We were in a cab, because Harriet was older and had a bad back that caused her to limp. She couldn’t walk even though the apartment was only a few blocks away. We’d been killing time in one of those gross, greasy spoon diners just below Union Square, probably an old place, been there forever, long before me or any of my friends moved to the city. We were in the middle of the full-out rush hour lunch crowd and there was one table left in the restaurant. Harriet Loshin ordered a muffin and a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Who orders decaffeinated coffee? So many people seem to think that decaf has no caffeine and they’re shocked when, after three cups, their head is abuzz with adrenaline. Anyway, I wasn’t hungry, I’d just eaten and I was starting to come down with a little something so I ordered chamomile tea.

The cute, young blonde Russian waitress said tersely, “Minimum order five dollars. You must order more food,” like the recorded voice of a prison camp director pumped in over loud speakers.

Harriet turned to me and gave me that semi-ugly, scrunched-up face that people make when they don’t understand a word that was just spoken to them. I translated for her: “Five dollar minimum.” She nodded and looked back up at the waitress who was growing testier by the second.

“It’s busy here,” she said, “All the tables are full,” and she pointed around the restaurant with her click pen to prove her point then repeated, “Five dollar minimum,” lest Harriet or I had still not received the directorate.

I took a minute to look through the menu.

“Give me some cottage cheese,” I said, the ultimate fuck-you order. That’ll show that little Soviet bitch-queen waitress.

She looked at me with disgust and disappeared into the kitchen. She was right, though, it was packed in the restaurant. How could so many people find this horrible food palatable? I looked at the table to our left and saw three enormously fat businessmen who had somehow managed to cram their multi-layered rolls of flab into the immobile and unforgiving diner booth contours.

In a transparently desperate attempt to kill time before our next appointment Harriet didn’t so much try to engage me in conversation as she attempted to throw at me every anecdote she could from her Harriet Loshin consciousness file. God bless her. I mean, I know she wasn’t trying to do me any harm and was certainly not trying to cause me any distress or boredom with her small talk. She was just being a good salesperson. Keep the customer busy. Don’t let them sit quietly for two seconds. That would be deadly. That would kill any potential deal. Harriet had a thick, creaky old-woman voice that sounded as if she were eating a sandwich and that, for some reason, made her seem really trustworthy.

As she continued to send a torrential stream of language my way she occasionally alternated her tones like a master saxophone player always returning to the root note. I instantly forgot 98% of what she said. At one point Harriet told me she used to write poetry. That stuck.

“How long ago was that?” I asked, wanting a sense of scale.

“When I was young,” she laughed then immediately turned serious, her far-off glance settling in the deeply somber distance over my left shoulder. Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought.

My tea and cottage cheese came. Harriet’s decaf coffee came but no muffin. I was dying. I wanted to get out of the diner A.S.A.P. I used to love diners but – I don’t know when the paradigm shifted – now I think they’re the most disgusting places in the world. None of the food’s any good, it’s not even that cheap, and no matter what you order, you are guaranteed to have diarrhea immediately afterward. Harriet got her muffin and I excused myself to go to the bathroom which was sort of thrilling because I really did have to go and it gave me a chance to leave the table and be alone for a few minutes. Peace. New York City is so constantly in-your-face and over-the-top that you end up being thrilled that you have to go to the bathroom. This is something that people don’t talk about when they talk about New York City — that it makes you really appreciate having a bowel movement, just to have a little quiet as the cultural insanity swirls outside you.

When I returned to the table from my spa-like bowel movement it was suddenly time to go. Harriet finished her decaf and toasted muffin and I finished my tea though did not, of course, touch my cottage cheese (you can never eat the fuck-you food otherwise it would just be food). We paid the bill and, on the way out, I caught the waitress’s pretty profile out of the corner of my eye and saw her little button nose and thought what a sweet woman she probably was, how she was probably a dreamy little girl and will probably have a few dreamy little girls of her own someday who will grow up to become utterly unlikable, draconian waitresses in grotesque, inhumane diners where people seek shelter in the diarrhea-stained bathrooms in a blissful respite from the human shit-pile that is New York City.

“Ahh, life,” I thought darting out into the slightly overcast, choppy late summer air.

We stopped at the appropriate corner and, in my manliest demeanor, told her that I would wave down a cab. I stepped into the street and waved my long arm in the air. For cab drivers, I am the ultimate flagger. It’s hard to miss my arm. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a great quality of mine (I don’t tell women about my long cab-waving arms on a first date, for instance) but it does happen to be true. At first, though, there were no free cabs. We waited. Cars passed. People walked by. The streets were slicked with rain. And then, as if swooping down from the sunshiney heavens, a minivan cab soared into my line of sight and, seeing my arm, seamlessly descended on our position.

I gestured for Harriet to get in (ladies first) but she waved me off and said, “No, no, you go,” and I realized it would have been physically too difficult for her to get in first and slide all the way over. I said hi to the cab driver like I always do. I think it’s important to make a good first impression. I mean, why not? They are about to drive you – no, chauffeur you – through a hyper-crazed urban war-zone. Why not say hello? It must be such a lonely job and I can only imagine how awful and rude so many people are to cab drivers. I’ve seen my own friends be incredibly rude and it’s just not right. They don’t deserve it.

As Harriet was getting into the minivan she said, “West 12th Street between Sixth and Seventh,” to which our sixty-something Pakistani cabbie guffawed in response.

“That’s only four or five blocks from here!” he practically shouted with indignation.

What an asshole, I thought.

I saw this kind of response before when my mom, grandmother and I visited Manhattan on a college trip in the summer of 1993. My mom had just had two hip replacements and, at the time, had difficulty walking even a few blocks. We ran into several cab drivers who refused us service because the distance was too small. I understand why a cab driver would want the highest possible fares but still…how are handicapped people supposed to get around Manhattan? Maybe they’re not.

It made me mad that the cab driver was huffy to us when Harriet told him where we were going. But he didn’t kick us out. We were already in with our seat belts buckled. It was too late. Harriet didn’t hear what he said anyway and when she looked at me with that same ugly, scrunched face I waved it away as if it were nothing. At least she didn’t realize she was being discriminated against.

Five minutes and several blocks later the crabby cabbie pulled up to our address, stopped and, as we began to unbuckle, jolted forward, realizing our address was still a few doors up ahead on the left. When he pulled to a stop a second time we began to unbuckle again and the cab driver jolted forward one more time almost giving Harriet and I whiplash. I laughed. What was he doing?

How odd.

“This is it,” he said.

I got out and stood next to the driver’s window as I reached for my wallet.

Just as I did a big thirty-something black guy walked up to the window inches in front of me and yelled directly into the cab driver’s face, “What the fuck are you doing? You almost ran me over!”

And the cab driver, equally angry, responded, “No I didn’t. I did not almost run you over.”

“Yes you did, motherfucker!” the guy at the window yelled back, “I was walking right here next to this car and you almost crushed me!”

“I did not almost crush you!” the cab driver yelled, “Fuck you!”

And then, the black guy leaned back in one quick, powerful motion and sprang forward punching the cab driver at point-blank range, hard in the face.

All activity on the street seemed to freeze as if the block were an early twenty-first century diorama in the Natural History Museum.

I let out a soft and disappointed, “Oh!”

At my left two young Japanese guys were staring in shock, plastic shopping bags dangling from their hands. To the left of them the slickly dressed, thirty-something gay realtor Harriet Loshin and I were going to meet stood beneath the building’s awning, arms nonchalantly crossed in front of his pin-stripe double-breasted jacket, one leg folded in front of the other as if this were the thirteenth punching he’d witnessed that day.

The sixty-something Pakistani cab driver leaned his suddenly fragile head and neck out the window into the cool late summer air like a baby chick poking its wet head through the cracks of its eggshell. His eyes were teary and confused and there was a large red gash opened beneath his left eye, a stream of blood already coursing down his face. I was shocked.

I had no idea that one blow, as simple as it appeared, the kind that I’ve fantasized about delivering a thousand times to a thousand assholes could so easily tear a hole in a man’s face. Suddenly, this cabdriver, this man who was so rude and obnoxious to my deaf and lame, sandwich-chewing realtor Harriet Loshin and I only moments ago was now helpless and wounded.

One of the young Japanese men broke the silence and in an alarmingly high voice yelled, “You can’t do that! That’s not right! I’m calling the police,” all the while pointing at the puncher who was now standing several feet back, close to the curb, his glance downward, the reality of the moment apparently sinking in.

The cab driver looked at me through teary, disbelieving eyes and, in a feeble voice, said, “Someone, call the police.”

“Someone is calling the police,” I said.

He turned to me, pointing at the man who’d punched him, and pleaded, “Don’t let him get away.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding solemnly, knowing full well I would do absolutely nothing if, suddenly, the puncher bolted off down the street, something I expected him to do at any second. It’s what I would have done if I’d punched the cab driver.

Suddenly, I felt useless just standing there. I wanted to do something. I could not and did not want to continue on my way to view the apartment for sale and decided instead to clean up the cab driver’s wound.

“I’m going to get something for your cut,” I told him and ran west down the street, as a slight bolt of adrenaline (which could have been fear) shot through my body.

I ran into a small dry cleaners imagining they’d have a towel or thrown away t-shirt I could grab and I would say to the confused clerk on my way out, “I need this! A man is hurt!” But the dry cleaners had nothing.

I ran a few more doors down and came to an open-aired Italian restaurant and I strode rapidly inside to the back where I grabbed a pile of paper napkins. A cute, bookish waitress with ponytail and glasses looked at me with a puzzled face and, walking briskly past her, I said, “I need these. A man’s bleeding,” almost as steely and efficiently as Superman himself or even George Clooney on ER.

It was that rare moment when I actually had to say something in public. I had to explain my actions. For the most part, you can live your life without ever saying anything to anyone, anywhere. It’s such a sad realization but it’s true. I mean, sure, it’s expected of you to say Please and Thank You, Hello, and Goodbye to store clerks or restaurant staff but it’s not quite the same as being faced with a blood-gushing emergency. It made me realize how long it had been since I’d felt that invisible, undeniable force of necessity. It felt good, like being tapped on the shoulder by some long lost, slightly crazy friend who you’d thought had died or run away to get married never to be heard from again.

But now he was back and all along you’d forgotten how much you missed him, how he helped you truly live your life, kept you from wandering through it like some half-conscious, cave-dwelling mammal.

I returned with the napkins, half expecting more violence to have broken out though none had. The cab driver stood outside his cab shakily surveying the scene. The young Japanese fellow had apparently gotten off the phone with the police and was now making stay-where-you-are-you’re-not-going-anywhere gestures to the puncher who irritatingly shrugged him off.

“Man, I’m not going anywhere! I want the police to come,” he said angrily. And then, picking up his cell phone said, “I’m going to call them myself.”

The cab driver heard this and yelled out in a high-pitched squeal, “He’s calling the police now? What is this!?! Ooooh….”

I walked up to him and started wiping the blood from his face but he immediately waved me off.

“Leave the blood,” he said, “I want the police to see I’ve been punched.”

I laughed. “I think they’re going to be able to tell you’ve been punched without the blood.” Then I told him as firmly as possible that he needed to sit down and that I was going to apply pressure to his cut.

“You look like you’ve been in a boxing match,” I said.

“Oooh,” he whimpered again. The punch had reduced him to a little helpless boy.

This was obviously a man who hadn’t been punched in a long time, if ever. I wonder how I would have responded? I looked over at the man who punched him and he wore a hard look on his face, though not the kind of irretrievable hardness that is difficult to find sympathy for, just a hardness indicative of a difficult life. I wondered if he’d ever been punched and assumed he had if this was how he responded to a charged situation.

That was the first wound I’d ever treated and it was just such a pure and simple exchange: Wounded man — Helper. It was an unambiguous, non-ironic, actual exchange between two people forced together by a particular chain of events and I found myself rather enjoying it, much more than the Realtor – Client relationship, which has the appearance of helpfulness but is really just predatory.

The police arrived promptly within two or three minutes and as the squad car pulled up the cab driver asked me if I would please speak up and be a witness for him. I nodded calmly and said I would, that I’d seen it all. A tall blond officer emerged from the driver’s door. He looked like he could have been a California beach bum in the years before becoming an officer, his hair curling in a perfectly shampooed wave. He and his partner, a shorter, vaguely ethnic, dark-haired man approached the cab driver and black puncher who’d naturally come together side-by-side in front of the cab as if awaiting judgment on either side of blind Lady Justice’s scales.

The taller, blond officer assumed the position of makeshift judge as half-deaf Harriet Loshin and I stood behind the plaintiff and defendant like court observers.

The tall blond turned to the wounded man first, “What happened?”

In a voice bordering on hysteria the cab driver began, “This man ran up to my window, accused me of almost running him over. I did not even see him. And then he punched me!”

The officer-judge turned to the accused and repeated, in exactly the same tone, “What happened?”

“I was walking down the street,” he said in an angry, indignant voice, “and this guy almost drove me over…”

“Listen to him!!!” the cab driver interjected wildly, pointing at his attacker, looking to me for support.

“Let him finish,” the officer said calmly, silencing the cabbie. “Go ahead,” he motioned to the accused.

“…He almost drove me over. He almost pinned me to this car,” he broke off as he pointed at a parked sedan several feet back.

“And then what?” the officer asked.

Pause.

“And then I hit him!” the black guy responded with a timing that could almost be described as comic.

“Turn around,” the tall blonde officer said, “you’re under arrest.”

And just like that the makeshift trial was over and the accused man was cuffed and placed into the rear of the squad car.

“Thank you, thank you,” the cab driver said to no one in particular, his head bobbing back and forth like Stevie Wonder.

I was surprised that the puncher was arrested. I didn’t know what I thought would happen but cuffing him and taking him into custody, marking him as a criminal, seemed an extreme thing to do to a man who’d lost his temper in a single, heated moment. But I guess you can’t just let people go around punching each other. A punching ticket wouldn’t be stiff enough. There would be a lot more random punching if that were the case. Strange to think how human behavior is so directly affected by something as abstract as Law; that human behavior, which I so often think about as fixed and universal is, actually, quite malleable.

I immediately felt sorry for the man being taken into custody. What was going to happen to him? Would this violent outburst mark him for the rest of his life? Did he have a long criminal record and would this violation send him over the top? Would he face prison time? I could see the sadness, fear and regret in his eyes as the law descended on him, his hands cuffed at the small of his back, his head bowed in the rear of the squad car.

After I gave the shorter, darker police officer my contact information so I could be called on as a witness if one was needed Harriet Loshin and I finally proceeded to greet the realtor whom we’d originally taken the cab to meet, in effect, causing the entire incident. The three of us exchanged slightly disappointed “Shit happens” expressions with shoulder shrugs all around. It seemed as if both realtors were embarrassed to have been even marginally involved in the fracas, as if their proximity to such a primal act reflected poorly on them as people.

The three of us (a true Larry, Moe and Curly) boarded the tiny elevator and proceeded upstairs to the apartment. I will never, I thought, be alone with these two people again for the rest of eternity. The apartment was tiny, ugly and expensive. Small dogs were allowed. Plenty of closet space. Washer and dryers in the building. After about thirty seconds in the unit I said thank you and we all made for the elevator where conversation turned back to the incident. “Well, at least you won’t forget the building,” the slick-haired gay realtor said. He was certainly right about that.

The following night, as I was on my way to meet several friends at a faux-french bar/restaurant in the meatpacking district just below Chelsea, I passed a supermarket located next door and can you imagine who I saw? I saw the puncher and he was working, collecting several carts on the sidewalk in front of the supermarket. What were the chances of me ever seeing that man again, let alone the very next night? I knew I had to talk to him, had to take advantage of the outrageous circumstances but was slightly intimidated. He and I never made eye contact the previous day and I didn’t know if he was going to be angry at me for standing at the scene as a witness on the cab driver’s behalf.

Several hours and half a dozen beers and a cheeseburger later I departed momentarily from my friends and walked through the supermarket in search of this man whose anger led me to feeling positively alive with exhilaration the previous day. I saw him, his rock-heavy features and stoic expression standing near the candy racks in front of the checkout lines. I strode up to him, my confidence building with every step. How could I be afraid of this guy? I kind of loved this guy. I slapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey,” I said with a laugh, “what happened to you yesterday?”

He looked at me with a blank stare and quickly looked away and I could tell that he had no idea who I was.

“I was in the cab yesterday when you hit the driver.”

He smiled as a look of recognition appeared in his eyes and his entire composure relaxed. “Hey man, how you doing?” he said and we clutched hands.

“What happened to you yesterday?” I asked again, “Did they hold you all day?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated, for dragging me into the whole thing and ruining my day.

I wanted to tell him that it was, somehow, one of the best things that’d happened to me in a long time but thought it might be a weird thing to say so I just laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it.”

He said the police held him for about ninety minutes and that it was an Assault 2 charge that would be reduced to an Assault 1, a misdemeanor, that would not go on his permanent record. I was glad to hear.

“I’m the manager of this store,” he said with a lot of pride, changing the subject.

“That’s great,” I said, knowing that he really wanted me to know that he’s a legitimate person, a contributing member of society and not just some thug who goes around punching people.

“The cop told me in the car that I did what he thinks about doing every day,” he said after a long silence and I imagined the tall, blond surfer fellow saying that and it made me happy.

That seemed to be an honest response to what had happened. We’re all capable of hurting one another all day, every day, and to deny that would be an injustice.

We are, truly, so vulnerable to one another. How many times have I wanted to punch a strutting hipster, to shove some fat woman out of the way, to shout profanities in the face of a child? This man acted on his anger and — though what he did was wrong — I admired him for it. I admired him for acting on his base impulse. However crude, it was honest and that counts for something.

“Had you ever done that before?” I had to ask him.

He laughed, “No, I don’t go around hitting people.”

And that was that. We were pals.

I said, “Well, listen, I just wanted to stop by and see what happened to you yesterday.”

He smiled in appreciation of my gesture.

We clasped hands again and he said warmly, “Stop by any time.”

“I will,” I said, “I will.”

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