A Hard Lesson Upside the Head



Neighborhood: Carroll Gardens

She was never really my girlfriend. She was my occasional hook-up, I guess, my sometimes companion. Nothing more than that. A girl, true enough, but I don’t think she was ever really any kind of friend.

This story isn’t about her, anyway.

I was a month-old New York newborn, a 39 year-old infant who could only find Manhattan if I started from the F train at Smith & Ninth in Carroll Gardens. That’s where I lived – had been living – I’d just been booted. She needed some time to herself, some space to recover from her latest trying ordeal. I’d been here a month. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any place to go.

Those arguments were pointless, and besides, her parents were visiting. Couldn’t I just be nice? I didn’t think I could, so I sealed myself in a bubble of iPod ear-buds and went for a walk. Sunday night in Carroll Gardens – what could be safer?

Carroll Gardens is brownstones and baby carriages. Right? It’s tree-lined streets and charming cafes, old school enough for the Italian men to still sit in lawn chairs on the sidewalk and wave like they know you but gently gentrified to the point where out-of-towners can wander the streets after sundown, oblivious to all but Billy Joel’s melodiously mournful ode to the girl who done him wrong and their own angst-addled thoughts.

Billy Joel. I guess I was asking for it.

When I was four years old, I was a wee little lad. To pee standing up, like I big boy, I had to stretch up on my toes and lay my little winkie on the lip of the commode. Once, in mid-micturation , the toilet lid fell and mashed my nascent manhood like a porcelain hammer. My dad ran into the bathroom in response to my hysterical hiccupping and valiantly suppressed his laughter enough to comfort me. I thought I was dying.

He loves that story. That night in Carroll Gardens, my father called while I marched up and down Smith. He wanted to know how I was doing, wanted to tell me how happy he was I’d finally moved to New York, wanted to tell me, even though I was a grown man and he was sure I was safe and smart, it was hard not to picture that tiny little kid with the wounded willy all alone in the great, big city. He sounded far away while we talked. He sounded old.

I told him I was fine, dropped the phone in my pocket, decided to be fine, and started back toward the apartment. I’d paid rent through the end of the month. Uncomfortable or not, it was the only place I had to go. I replaced the ear-buds and turned up the iPod as loud as I could take it. Lost in thought, head up ass, comforted by Billy’s declaration that “she’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden / Then she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleedin’,” I started down the dark street beneath the train tracks.

When I woke up on the sidewalk, two years sober, my very first thought was: “Am I drunk? How did I get drunk?” Then I saw the puddle of blood on the pavement, felt it dripping off my face, heard the ringing in my ears, the absence of music.

In the emergency room later, the nurse counted the wounds. Three blows to the left side of my head, the temple, my nose, then the jaw. That was probably the one that took me out, it being all glass and everything. And of course, there was the big bleeding knot on my forehead from pitching forward onto the sidewalk. The bloody bruise on top of my head, it seemed to her, could only be the result of someone kicking me while I was down.

I never even heard them coming. Didn’t see a thing except stars (really, just like in the comic books) and then a whole lot of nothing. I remember the electric buzz when they ripped the iPod out of my pocket and the earphone cable disconnected (they were still swinging from my ears when I woke up) and I remember hands, but that’s it. They got my iPod and my Zippo, but not my wallet or my phone. What I got was a $900 hospital bill and the surprised assurances of the cop and the EMT that “This kind of thing doesn’t happen here. It’s Carroll Gardens.”

The lesson I learned there on the sidewalk that summer Sunday night is one I should have learned thirty-four years earlier, one I think my dad was trying to tell me when he called, a hard lesson, but one I don’t think I could have done without. In life and love and living in New York City, it’s best to avoid situations where you are going to get your dick smashed.

Todd Cobb is a writer and expatriate Texan living abroad, currently residing with relative safety in Brooklyn, New York.

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