Neighborhood: East Village, Lower East Side


I’ve been accused of many things, but never of false modesty. You’d have to be pretty old to remember the catchy TV ads that the long departed Braniff Airways used to run. They hired celebrities like New York Jets star quarterback Joe Namath to recite one line: “If you’ve got it … flaunt it!

Evidently Braniff did not quite have it, because they soon went bankrupt. But for decades, a lot of people did remember their ad.

I’m telling you all of this because, like Braniff Airways, I don’t mind flaunting it. But unlike those guys, I’m still flying – if you get my drift.

For a couple of years back in the late eighties, my family lived on the Lower East Side. From time to time I came back to the old neighborhood, never failing to be amazed at how much it was continually changing.

One night, I ended up at a party off Houston Street where I ran into my friend Nancy. Afterwards, we found a small all-night deli just around the corner from my old apartment. I immediately noticed the waitress. I mean, how could I not notice her? I was pretty sure she was an aspiring actress. If looks alone could do it, she’d be a star in no time.

For some reason, Nancy and I were trying to recall the name of a Flemish artist who had painted a winter scene with people ice skating. I think there were also men with a pack of dogs.

Just then the waitress came over to take our order. She flashed a dazzling smile and said one word, “Bruegel.”

Nancy and I looked at each other and laughed, while shaking our heads in amazement.

“Let me amend that. Pieter Bruegel the Elder.”

I thanked the waitress, saying that she had saved me from going to the grave still trying to recall the artist’s name.

She smiled. “My name is Jill. Do you know what you’d like or do you need menus?”

“Hi! I’m Steve and I’m ready to order.”

“And I’m Nancy. I’d like a pastrami on rye and a side of potato salad.”

“Great minds think alike,” I added.

“Anything to drink?”

We both ordered Dr. Brown’s cream soda. Jill sped off with our order.

“I think she likes you,” Nancy said.

“What makes you think that?” I asked.

“Women’s intuition… Didn’t you notice the way she was looking at you?”

“Nancy, I have such a big ego I often imagine women undressing me with their eyes. I don’t think that was the case just now.”

“Seriously, I think she’s really attracted to you. When she comes back with our orders, why don’t you strike up a conversation with her? If she’s interested, then she’ll engage. Trust me.”

“OK, but I’m sure this is all in your head.”

“We’ll see.”

“Say, Nancy. For some reason, do you know what this reminds me of?”

“I don’t have a clue.”

“Do you remember the song, ‘Patches’?”

“I think so. About the boy who loved the girl who lived on the poor side of town?”

“Right! And his family tells him he has to break it off because marrying her would bring his family disgrace.”

“And then, Steve, she throws herself into the river and drowns. So what made you bring up that song?”

“I’ve always felt awkward talking to waiters and waitresses. I mean, if they were rich, they wouldn’t be waiting tables.”

“But not all of them are poor, and you’re certainly not rich.”

“No, Nancy, but I probably earn a lot more than they do, and here they are waiting on me. There’s just something awkward about the relationship.”

“Steve, you’re overthinking this. And now you’re afraid that this waitress, who represents Patches to you, is going to drown herself because you won’t ask her for her number.”

Then, very softly, she started to sing the last verse of the song, and I immediately joined in. We didn’t want to disturb the people at the neighboring tables, and we certainly didn’t want Jill to hear us.

Patches oh what can I do
I swear I’ll always love you
It may not be right
But I’ll join you tonight
Patches I’m coming to you.

We sang it a second time, and just as we were about to do still another round, we both noticed a really strange looking guy a few tables away stand up and glance over at us. He looked as though he had just gotten off a bus from the Ozarks.

Very tall,  haggard looking, middle-aged, wearing overalls and a red and black checkered shirt, he began to make his way toward our table. When he was just two or three feet from us, he stopped and just stood there, seemingly waiting to be recognized.

“Sir, what can we do for you?” I asked.

He just stood there looking very, very sad. Finally, he asked in a very soft voice, “Did I hear you say, ‘patches’?”

It was clear he was from the south – maybe Arkansas or Tennessee. When he spoke, he managed to keep his mouth almost completely shut, perhaps because he was missing most of his teeth.

We sat there in silence. This was really strange. The guy looked like he was going to burst into tears at any moment.

Not sure of how he would react, I just nodded.

“So, you did say patches?”

Again, I nodded. I noticed that Nancy looked quite concerned. I had this crazy thought that maybe somehow this man had some connection with the song.

Maybe the song was based on a true story. Maybe Patches was a real person. Maybe she had drowned herself. Maybe this guy…

I suddenly felt completely ashamed of myself. This man must have suffered some terrible loss, and here we were singing this song. I wanted to comfort him, to apologize.

But then he began to smile. “Let me explain. Would you believe I’m in the patch business — I thought to myself, what are the odds? I mean, how could you possibly have known this?”

He noticed our incredulous looks.

“I mean, look: I’m in New York City now! The Big Apple! And here is someone talking about my business!”

Hold on a second!”

He reached into his pocket and then handed each of us a card.

“If you ever need anything, just call. I make patches for every type of clothing. I do wholesale and retail. Elbow patches, knee patches, I have patches for every occasion. Whatever you need, I can do it.”

Then he smiled again, nodded, and went back to his table.

Nancy and I just looked at each other, trying not to laugh.

We whispered, afraid he might hear us. We wondered if that guy was for real?

“Didn’t he have, like a hillbilly accent?”

“It was hard to know for sure, Nancy. But I’ll tell you this: I think it is weirder that he was in the patch business than if somehow he had something to do with the song.

Just then, Jill arrived with our food. Before we could thank her, she asked if she could sit down for a minute.

“My feet are killing me.”

Nancy gave me a big smile.

I wanted to ask her if she knew that poor guy. But he was probably just another customer who got hungry at two in the morning.

Jill asked if we were local. I said that I had lived around the corner almost thirty years ago on the block with all the Indian Restaurants.

I did notice that she looked at me much more than Nancy. I was very tempted to ask her for her number, but what if she said “No”? Besides, maybe she thought Nancy was my date. Even if she did like me, she wouldn’t want to embarrass Nancy.

Jill told us that she was indeed an actress, and that if we were interested, she would be appearing in a showcase next month. She handed us flyers and then  got up and went back to work.

“So,” said Nancy, “Was I right or was I right?”

When we finished, we split the bill, and  I threw an extra ten on the table. When we left, Jill waved and gave us a big smile. Then she said, “Come back anytime!”

I was parked just down the street. As we got into the car, Nancy asked me what I was going to do.

“What do you mean? Oh, about Jill?”

She just looked at me.

“I don’t know. Look, I couldn’t ask her for her number.”

“Well, I don’t think you should have let this opportunity go by.”

Nancy lived just a few minutes uptown and after I dropped her off, I drove back to the deli. Just as I was parking across the street, I saw Jill coming out.

I knew I’d have to make my move right then. As I started to get out of the car, I saw the patches guy coming out.

I froze, half in and half out of the car.

The two of them were talking. I’d have to wait until they finished their conversation.

Seconds later they walked off in the same direction. I waited a few seconds and followed. Then I noticed that they were holding hands.


Steve Slavin is a recovering economics professor, and earns a living writing math and economics books. The first two volumes of his stories To the City: with Love, were recently published.


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§ 2 Responses to “Patches”

  • Ghurron Briscoe says:

    Mr.Steve Slavin, patches liberating fiction is a read again this summer of 2019 for me with a joyus Chum.

  • Steve Slavin says:

    Hi Ghurron,

    Thank you for the kind words.


§ Leave a Reply

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