Requiem For a Regular

by

07/28/2007

Cathedral Pkwy & Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

We called him Broadway Johnny, and as far as I know, none of us ever learned his last name.

Every morning for the past fifteen years, he’d hobble out of Amsterdam House, the nursing home on 112th Street, and head for Straus Park to wait for Cannons, the dark Irish bar on 108th where Hemingway purportedly used to drink, to open for business at noon. Cannons wasn’t his favorite, but he could make due there for a few hours, hunkered in the window, watching the Columbia students traipse up and down the street, until the other neighborhood bars unlocked their doors. Then he’d be off to Tap a Keg. Then Saints. Then finally 1020, the bar where my friends and I hang out.

Broadway Johnny. He had to have been eighty, eighty-five years old, a wizened little African American guy with rheumy eyes and no teeth. He was the first person 1020 ever served, having shown up at four p.m. the day it opened demanding a Budweiser in a cold mug. When Timmy, the bartender, filled a pint glass for him, he’d clapped his cane against the bar in protest. The next day, he returned with a mug stolen from Cannons. This would be his glass. For the next twelve years, he was there every day, watching and listening and grumbling about the society that congregated around the bar.

I don’t know much about his life before the years he spent trolling Morningside Heights. He wasn’t the kind of guy you got to know. He was more the type you put up with, rolling your eyes and keeping your distance.

What I do know is that he’d grown up black and gay in the Jim Crow south, that he’d moved to New York when his health was still vigorous, and that, in his day, he’d been the life of the party.

He was cantankerous, feisty, quick to scowl and shout. And he was a man of strong opinions. Any given day would find him pointing his shaky finger in somebody’s face. “You’re stupid,” he’d say. “You don’t know nothing!” And then he’d proceed to explain exactly how you were stupid, exactly what it was you didn’t know. He berated me. He berated my friends. He especially liked to berate Timmy the bartender. But no matter how disgusted he became, he was always right back in his nook at the front of the bar the next day.

Eventually, my friends and I came to understand that the more Johnny scoffed at you, the more it meant he adored you.

There was a petulance, a flirtatiousness, in the way the way he yelled and screamed. At the same time as he was calling you a fool, he was pressing you into being his ally against all those other fools out there in the world. No matter how vehemently he shook his cane and frowned, he couldn’t completely mask the puckish crease of glee lingering in the corner of his eye. He was toying with you, playing the role he knew you expected of him. And he was having fun.

One day last fall, Johnny showed up with a fancy new camera, a birthday gift from his nephew. He wasn’t really sure how to use it, and he fumbled with it for a long while, muttering under his breath and refusing to let anyone help him navigate the mechanics of its use. Once he got the hang of it, though, he was an unrelenting force, barking at people, arranging and posing us, snapping picture after picture after picture after picture. He kept this up for the next week and a half. Everytime you turned around his flash would be going off. He knew exactly who he wanted pictures of, and once he got you, he’d gaze at the monitor built into the camera, the expression on his face softening to reveal the depths of sentiment his grouchy demeanor denied.

A few weeks later, I saw him on the street. “Hey, Johnny,” I said.

He rattled his cane at me and snarled. “Don’t you be doing that,” he said, absurdly. “You know better than that.” Then he waddled up to me and pressed a photo into my palm, a picture he’d taken of me with a friend from the bar. “Go on, now, get!” he said. “Get on outta here.”

I know very few people as old as Johnny, trapped in the antiseptic space of a nursing home, who are capable of having such a good time. His doctors had warned him not to drink. His sole living relative, the nephew who had bought him his camera and with whom he was often at war, had met with the nursing home’s administration and together they’d forbidden him from leaving the premises. Still, he snuck out, day after day, to make his rounds. It was something he needed, to be out in the world, surrounded by people fifty or more years his junior, to see the vigor of youth continue around him and to feel, to whatever degree he could, that he was still a part of it. When he laughed, which he often did, he’d buckle over and cackle and wheeze. His eyes would bug wide and he’d wag his finger as though to say, “No more, I’m dying of joy.”

Johnny had cancer. At some point years ago he’d had a colostomy and the bag attached to his abdomen bulged under his slacks. As he got older, his voice grew raspy—the last time I spoke with him, it wasn’t much more than a whisper.

This past January, he finally grew so sick that he could no longer leave the nursing home. Though over the years he’d mostly been an annoyance, all of us at the bar felt the empty space where he no longer was in the corner. We talked about him in ways we hadn’t before; instead of “pain in the ass” and “pest,” we used words like “sweet” and “lovable.” Some of the bar regulars began stopping by the nursing home to check on him and bring the rest of us updates.

Now, in retrospect, his picture-taking spree makes sense. He must have known his daily pub crawls were going to come to an end soon and these snapshots were his way of prolonging the ride. I imagine him lying in his sick bed with the photos spread out on the sheet next to him. He’s muttering. He’s shaking his head in disgust. He’s pretending he’s still out in the world with us.

On June 30th , word spread that Broadway Johnny had died. For the next few days, Timmy made sure his mug was full and in its usual spot at the corner of the bar. Next to it, he lit a small white candle.

Johnny, wherever you are out there now, this Bud’s for you.

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