“It ain’t what they call you; it’s what you answer to.” ― W.C. Fields
We might deny it, but most of us don’t like who we are. Maybe we pretend we’re someone else. Maybe we don’t know, or, maybe we just don’t care. Take me for instance. My name is Carl. But it wasn’t when I returned home from work that hot June day in Troy Hills; it was Frank, Frank Stanley.
I’m no genius, but it didn’t take one to figure the power was out. I knew my condo would be an oven, and it was, so I grabbed a Schlitz Lite from the dead refrigerator and dragged a kitchen chair out to the balcony. I needed some air.
Just as I tried to take a deep breath, the wind came up and I got a mouthful of sand for my trouble, proving beyond a doubt that keeping your mouth shut, in general, is a good idea, not that I’ve ever put much stock in good ideas.
Oh, and my can of Schlitz Lite, it tasted like shit, so I threw it as far as I could into the parking lot below.
Boris Yemenski, the short stocky Russian with the pencil moustache who ran the condo complex, ran past my balcony, holding his arms up. I wanted to whine about the power outage but he ran too fast. He flexed his gun tatts without breaking stride.
I could see Mrs. Mannering flailing away on her balcony, pushing about seventy in her half-opened kimono that flapped in the wind like a Japanese flag of conquest. She kept pointing at the steel curlers in her hair and waving at Boris to come up and fix her situation. Her dull yellow hair looked like wet straw and her skin was thin and crispy like fried cellophane. She usually wore very tight dresses.
Before I knew it, she disappeared into her condo and so did Boris. I didn’t see him after that. Management can often be a complex system of tradeoffs and compromises, but I had confidence in Boris.
The storm arrived. My three girlfriends that lived along the river, Justine, Josie and Jewel, were all being shaken like rag dolls by spoiled children. Even trees can become girlfriends when you haven’t had a date in a long time. I wondered if Boris was enjoying himself. Something sharp hit my face.
A trickle of blood came out of my right cheek and down the front of my shirt. I looked around to see who threw it. The minute I realized the wind did it, I decided to take it like a man. I impressed myself with my grace under fire as I wiped the blood away, keeping my finger on my cheek. I must have looked precious.
All the lights came on, and went off again. Boris still had time. I started thinking pornographically about Mrs. Mannering. Her skin became soft and firm, her breasts became larger and pinker. Her husband worked the night shift at the Walmart on Heath Place.
I could hear Sol Stein’s deep booming voice next door. He was blowing word bombs at his son Billie to study hard and make something of himself. Even I knew it was pointless. It was the same speech I’d heard myself, years before, by my own Sol. It was pointless then.
My can of thrown beer had somehow landed on the roof of Sol’s new SUV, his pride and joy, the shiny black one with the Tech Package. For a split second I convinced myself that I threw the brew for Billie. I made believe I was Billie’s hero and that I could save him.
The roaring wind muffled the rest of Sol’s monologue, but not the slamming of the door. I knew Annie Stein was pleading with Billie to stay.
At most, the whole death scene took five seconds. I’d heard gunshots before, so I ducked behind my balcony wall and watched Billie became an instant memory, unbeknownst to Billie. The passing storm buried Billie in dead leaves and garbage. Hard to know why, but the last thing Billie did was embrace the left front tire of Sol’s pride and joy. Maybe they’re right. Maybe we are what we drive, after all.
I decided not to waste my time consoling the Steins. I didn’t like them anyway and I was pretty sure the feeling was mutual. Besides, I could hear the cops’ canned consolations, so why bother.
The Steins once told me to leave Billie alone and stop giving him bad ideas. I told them how to raise him right. They told me to be the Jew I really was and to stop hiding from the truth. That was the last conversation we ever had, because I thought I’d discovered something new, that there were hypocrites everywhere, which turned out to be a good place to hide for a while.
When I legally changed my name from Stanley Frankowitz to Frank Stanley, I became Frank Stanley, and that was that. The air conditioning came on.
When I woke up the next morning, I found myself guilty. Somehow, I killed Billie myself. Somehow, everything changed right then.
I dropped my last moldy bagel into the toaster and hoped for the best, followed by a lame promise to myself to enjoy my morning despite the slideshow of death that kept shuffling and reshuffling itself in my head. It wouldn’t quit, even when I went back to the balcony to see if it had all been a bad dream. But there was Sol, in the parking lot, cleaning the Schlitz off the roof of his SUV. He was standing on the chalk outline of Billie’s head.
I went back inside and Googled myself, anything to stop the slideshow. And then that loop started all over again.
It took a while, but I finally found myself. I was number 68 of 12,761. I was on page four. Then I read my mother’s fake maiden name and the loop stopped.
Like most home security companies, ‘Tracers’ was a scam. The day I was hired by ‘Tracers’ as a Programmer, I had ‘opted out’ of sharing any of my personal information. To be on the safe side, I planted a marker in my data in case they didn’t comply with their promise of confidentiality. Sometimes it’s better to be stupid than naïve.
Pete’s Open-Door Policy, Peter Browning, CEO of Tracers, went like this: My door is always open but I’m not, so come on in. What angered Pete wasn’t that I walked in unannounced or that I angrily threw a printout of my Google ID on his desk, it was that I replaced his face on the twenty or so screens in his office with my own Personnel Profile.
“What’s that?” asked the CEO.
“It’s me… Pete.”
“I opted out of sharing my personal data.”
Pete speed-dialed Personnel. “Cut Frank Stanley’s last check and have it ready for him in five minutes. He’s on his way.”
As he ended that call, he looked up at me and smiled. The streaks of sunlight that came through his windows made broken diamonds across his face and grey streaked hair. “You know what your problem is Frank?” I refused to answer. He waited and waited and waited some more.
“Values Frank, you’ve got values.” His white teeth glistened in the sunlight as he smiled at me and extended his hand from behind his desk. I smiled back and walked out.
Charlie and Mike met me at Payroll and handed me a cardboard box with my stuff. They were the two Security Guards who escorted me out and made believe they didn’t know me. I tried to think like they must have been thinking at that moment, but I couldn’t.
I was free now, except for one thing. That damn loop came back!
There were still a couple of weeks left before the new school year would start.
Ten years hadn’t changed anything. New York City smelled the same. I didn’t get why the hope I was feeling felt like anger. But then I got it right away when I passed a head-phoned man walking up the stairs at the Union Square Station. For no apparent reason, just the sight of me must have pissed him off. He told me to go fuck myself. I thanked him for his feedback and continued down the stairs.
As I waited for the train to take me back to Brooklyn, I tried to guess what the ‘L’ in L Train stood for. ‘Loser’ became my only choice when I realized that journeys back are never multiple-choice.
The hissing of the closing doors sounded final. I looked up at an ad above the doors. It showed an older man and maybe his granddaughter walking by themselves on a snow-white beach. The caption read: ‘Don’t let your retirement stop you from enjoying your life.’ The sky above them was a blue I’d never seen before. A palm tree bent away from the water.
It was now me and my backpack, riding an empty subway car, holding on as the train picked up too much speed and started rocking like a laundromat washing machine.
The old man from the ad was walking towards me, but he kept looking over his shoulder at the young girl wobbling her way towards him in the careening train. She held her arms out aiming herself at him.
The screeching train jolted to a stop and the doors flew open. When I looked around, the two of them were gone.
The sign at the Saratoga Avenue Station was decorated with that colorful, confident graffiti, the kind they now call art even though it isn’t. I could see from the platform that the old neighborhood was still filthy and necessary. The flying white horse was now full of bullet holes, but still flying above the gas station, now abandoned.
The heavy thumping beat coming from Camacho’s Latin Music Store gave everything a pulse and the screaming sirens crying wolf gave it a voice.
Everything I owned was in my backpack. The weight of it pushed me down the elevated subway station stairs faster than I wanted to go. Three Puerto Rican Billies surrounded me at the bottom of the stairs. One of them squeezed my backpack like a mango. As a chorus they asked me if I was Jewish. I told them no and they laughed and asked me for money. I thanked them for their request, but would they like to die because I kill for dope. They flicked their cigarette butts at me and walked away.
As I walked, the smell of plantain chips frying in rancid oil hit me hard. Then the stench of rotting garbage and backed up sewers took over, it was fresh. I witnessed what happens when you take recycling too seriously as the scavengers ate the garbage and the drunks drank the sewage.
I turned the corner and there it was, 945 Dumont Ave, which used to be 945 MLK Boulevard, which used to be 945 Ithaca Ave.
A busybody woman in curlers, no comparison to Mrs. Mannering, was yelling at the top of her lungs out of a 4th Floor window at maybe her son to stop talking to hoodlums and go to work already before they’d fire him. She looked at me to see if I agreed. My pretended neutrality was weak and no match for her eyes and the smile on her face which thanked me for agreeing with her.
Right away I remembered that it didn’t take much to live there, or die there. But I didn’t have a coin to flip to see which one was mine. The buzzer that lets you in was on permanent buzz, so all you had to do was push, which I did. I should have known better.
I couldn’t tell where he was from, but after some sign language like opening a door with a key, the dirty t‑shirt landlord gave me the key to the dump I was about to call home. The sound of my footsteps echoed off the stone walls like bad acid trip elevator music. The one lyric to the song was on the wall. ‘Micro Boy loves Christina 4eVer’.
Apartment 202 caught me by surprise. I’d forgotten about Alex. He used to live there with his mother. He moved back to Poland after she killed herself. Not that I was an expert on the subject, but since then I’ve learned that people die all the time.
202’s brown metal door was stuck shut. I kept hitting it with my shoulder.
A young black kid was running up the stairs. He gave me a smirk of approval. I smirked back and told him to go fuck himself. He grabbed his crotch at me and glided up the stairs, four steps at a time. I couldn’t figure out why his footsteps were silent.
Principal Marcia Kaplan hadn’t aged gracefully, but her arrogance must have discovered the fountain of youth.
“Had I known it was you, Stanley, I wouldn’t have hired you. But since it’s too late to do anything about it right now, I’ll have to live with my decision, for now.”
“Marcia, if I can call you Marcia, I can teach these kids. I know I can.”
“No, you can’t call me Marcia. You can call me Principal Kaplan. Familiarity breeds contempt, and so on.”
The pencil she was stabbing the air with broke as she stabbed her desk with it. Her arrogance had morphed into road rage, not easy to do when you sitting behind a desk. She pumped the brakes a little.
“Tell me, why did you change your name Stanley?”
“Well, your name isn’t Principal Kaplan, is it Marcia? Why should I call you something you’re not, Marcia?”
That goosed her. She stood up and rearranged her black outfit and curled her finger at me. She hadn’t changed and the Intermediate School 242 that used to be Junior High School 242 hadn’t changed either. And although I thought I knew the answer already, I was about to find out if students had changed.
She fast-walked me up to my classroom where the students had already made themselves comfortable. As the door opened in front of her, she poked her head in.
“Class, I want to introduce Mr. Stanley. He’s your new Homeroom teacher. Please make him feel welcome.”
Marcia was still pretty strong. She shoved me in from behind. A loud fart came from the back of the classroom and many of the students laughed, a few didn’t.
“Yep, smells like Stanley,” said a female voice from the back.
Kaplan slammed the door.
They all had smartphones which they held like crucifixes.
“If you’re going to throw stuff at me when I turn around, do me a favor and wait a second so I can take my selfie with you first.”
Nothing came next. I sat on my chair with my legs up on the desk while they played video games with each other. I ignored them. When it was time for them to go to their next class, I ignored them. As they walked out, a few of them tried to look at what I was doing on my phone.
On my second day I found my way into their social media. For a while, my meme was anonymous. Then they got it and they were good with it. In fact, a few of them thought it was pretty funny and then a few more wanted to know how I did it. These were the naturally curious ones. Maria, Maria Gomez, was one of them. She was bright, inquisitive, positive, and everyone’s friend. I figured out quickly that gaining her trust was critical. She quietly spread the word that they needed to give me a chance to prove myself. It worked. Even the die-hards gave in but it took a full two months, which put them behind in the school curriculum.
I made sure I told them as often as I could that I would never betray their trust, no matter what, but, I had to prove it.
Then we flipped roles. They taught me their Family Rules. Rule #1 — Every member of the family had to be available to all the others 24/7, not the fake 24/7, the real 24/7. So, I made myself available to all of them whenever they needed me.
Curriculums, not the reasons for why they exist, have to be followed. I worked the curriculum into our social media. At first, they snapped to it but ignored it. But when I turned it into a video game called Beat the System, their test scores zoomed to the top of all the other classes in the school, they actually beat the system or curriculum or whatever you want to call the thing that was intended to keep them down. People took notice. Marcia thought I had taught them how to cloak their cheating.
Unfortunately for Marcia, the students actually started learning. Unfortunately for me, success breeds contempt.
Dejuan Howard earned his living as a PE teacher, but, earned his favor by snitching. He was the self-appointed hall monitor that spent all his free time, including lunch breaks, roaming the hallways and looking, for opportunities.
The School Policy of ‘No open windows for the safety of our students’, could not, under any circumstances, be broken. What we needed at that moment was air. The students couldn’t breathe, let alone think. So, I decided to open the windows.
“In case any of you are planning on jumping out of these windows, please don’t.”
The two-cough warning from Ersie Jefferson made it clear, the snitch was looking. Everyone ignored the snitch but knew exactly what was coming. I saw him. I was in the middle of a Social Studies lesson on the Declaration of Independence. In less than two minutes Marcia in red appeared at the door, doing her finger curl.
“And don’t forget students. At the same time that George Washington, the Father of our country, was declaring that all men were created equal, he was wearing dentures made from the teeth of his own slaves.”
“Can I see you for a second Mr. Stanley?”
“Certainly Marcia. Excuse me for one second class.”
“Mr. Howard, please take over while I speak to Mr. Stanley in my office.”
The smirking snitch glowed.
At that point in the school year, my six-day suspension was the end of my career. So, I walked home as the texts poured in. The one that made me feel the best was the one from Maria. It was uplifting and kind and thanked me for standing up for all of the Family members and that they were all behind me. I thanked her for her kindness.
I felt funny walking home. The heat wave in the city smothered everything. There was one window in my apartment that could be opened. It led out to the fire escape. Unfortunately, there was no fire and there was no escape, so I waited for more words. None came.
Two hours later, a text came from Ersie. It said that Maria had been killed by a speeding taxi as she crossed Saratoga Ave. ‘She was texting you, Mr. Stanley, and not paying attention to the traffic. She was killed just before sending you the text.’
I texted the Family that I was on my way to Maria’s home. I knew that no matter what I would tell her parents it couldn’t be heard. The death of a child is deafening and unfair. The tears of her friends couldn’t console Sixto and Soledad, Maria’s parents. Everyone told me it wasn’t my fault. But, the look in Sixto’s eyes became a weapon.
Marcia fired me in her office. None of her words made their way into my brain except ‘you caused this’ and ‘irresponsible’. Those words I knew.
As I passed the family in the hallway, I turned off my phone. I couldn’t look at them.
I didn’t like it much, sitting on a park bench, getting rained on, off and on.
“You should listen to him, you know. He’s got something important to tell you,” said an old man in a Mets cap who had stopped in front of me. He pointed his umbrella at a nearby tree.
“That bird, the little red one up there in the tree. His name is Silhouette.”
Then he sat down next to me and introduced his Chihuahua. “His name is Cupcake; in case you’re interested.”
Looking up at the sky didn’t work. The dog gave a low growl, which was amusing since he had no teeth. I tried the sky strategy again.
“I bought the ashes of Somerset Maugham years ago at a Flea Market on Pitkin Avenue, tripped out in India and found myself selling digital Christmas lights to Tibetan Monks in the Himalayas. To this day, mind you, to this day I have no idea how I got back home.” He shrugged off his own words. The dog growled at me again.
“What’s his problem?”
“Nothing. It’s just that you remind him of someone. He’s seen a photograph of this person for his whole life so he thinks he knows him.” He paused for a second and cupped his hand over his mouth and whispered to me like we’d known each other forever. “But he doesn’t really know him. But, I have to agree, there is a resemblance.” He very gently patted the dog’s head and said “He’s ok baby, he’s ok.”
He continued on. “I spread the ashes on the heating rocks of a Brighton Beach shvitz and inhaled as much of it as I could. But in case that wouldn’t work, I kept some in a shot glass in my kitchen cabinet as a backup. I thought that if I put it in a glass of warm tea, one day, and drank it, I could channel Maugham, when I finally got around to writing my novel, which I never did, by the way.”
“Why, because after I drank that glass of tea, I debated with myself for twenty-three years about whether or not drinking his ashes was the same thing as cannibalism. Couldn’t figure it out, so, well, here I am, still debating… But if I do, I’ve got the title for it. It will be called ‘Sanity as a Second Language. The User Manual.’ He nodded slightly as if he agreed with his own indecision.
I had a feeling he wouldn’t stop.
“My story cannot be stopped. It’s like this rain.” And right on cue the rain started again. He opened his umbrella over both of us. “It feeds my flow, which is an out-of-control river. It goes on forever, whatever forever is.” He caught his breath. “You would think that by now I would have figured it all out, being the broken-down piece of shit that I am. It’s unfortunate, though. Too many things to figure out when you get old.”
I thought I’d finally reached my limit, so I stood up to leave. But the old man gently pulled me back and handed me what looked like a plain white business card. It read ‘Murray The Bitch, F.B.A.’
“What’s an F.B.A.?”
“Freelance Bullshit Artist. I’m a salesman. I create it and sell it. For instance, for you, here’s what I would tell you. You can’t feast on life if your dessert is regret. And I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, that’s bullshit, which it is, but maybe not. And that’s my point. The truth is I can’t stop lying. So, no matter what I tell you, even if I tell you it’s a lie, you’ll still want more.”
“Listen, I lie to myself all the time. I don’t need any help from you.”
“Actually, you do”, insisted Murray. “You’ll see. Oh, and in case you want to know, I’m also on the web. Actually, I used to have my own You Tube Channel until they deleted it, which is too bad really. No matter though, because now I live in the Dark Web under the alias ‘Jack Webb in Drag’, not dragnet. All Jack wanted were facts. Not me. Why, because facts are bullshit. All I want are lies that sell, the hell with facts. So, if you’d like me to regularly lie to you it’ll cost you a flat $15/Month, which is my entry level Plan called UB, Unlimited Bullshit. Want another free sample?”
“Ok, remember, that everything I’m going to tell you is bullshit. So, here you are, sitting on this bench and I decide to sit down next to you, right?”
“Then I told you about my journey through my Hindu Hell and my cannibalistic tendencies as a neophyte writer, right?”
I couldn’t respond because I became paralyzed by my boredom.
“O.k., listen carefully because this is the crux. Are you sure you’re listening?”
“O.k., Cancer is nothing more than a manifestation of Schopenhauer’s Will. That’s right. It’s the force that’s everywhere, all the time. Everyone gets some of it, but some people, for whatever reason, get an excess amount because that Will has a mind of its own? Example, no one is immune from insanity which arrives like thunder from within and when it arrives it can’t be stopped. So, what happens when insanity fights cancer? Simple, you have Communism in a no-revolution takeover. Everything works for the good of the people. So, if you die, so be it.”
Murray answered. “Exactly. Because Communistic entrepreneurs like myself control their own destinies, for the good of the people of course. The sample I just gave you was a teaser. There’s more, in fact there’s always more. And, if you doubt me, remember this. Once you become a subscriber, it will be, I promise you, all about you! So, just keep that in mind. You will be your own addiction, and you’ll never be able to get enough of yourself, which is covered by the fee. You will become the dope of you.”
Eternity can come in many sizes. Mine came in a two-week package of boredom and self- pity, not to mention isolation. I talked to no one, including the old man and his chihuahua, who happened to be walking by my favorite bench in Betsy Head Park. No telling what would come out of his mouth.
“Hey. Hey you, Murray, I’m ready to be a member.”
He gently stopped. “If you are, remember, that everything I’m going to tell you is bullshit.” He held up one finger and added, “But, included with your UB are ‘free’ nuggets of what is known as The Truth. However, there’s a kicker. The amount of Truth will change from time to time.”
I couldn’t tell if Cupcake was nodding in approval or just breathing hard. Murray wanted to talk about Add-Ons.
“The percent of Truth you get depends on the level you’re buying. Your basic UB, Unlimited Bullshit, comes with a standard plus or minus ten percent Truth. But you can buy up to one hundred percent Truth if you choose, but even I have to admit, it’s a little pricey. And the truth about the Truth is that it’s never revealed. And, if you recall, even Truth is bullshit.”
“OK, are you ready?”
I took out my last ten and five and handed them to Murray. He wouldn’t take it and smiled with a quiet “Don’t worry about that now.” It took him a while to sit down on the bench and put Cupcake on his lap.
“O.K., there was a time when I was my own Rorschach Test. I lived in a world of robot memes. No matter where I went, they surrounded me. When I left the Himalayas, I found myself in Plato’s Cave. Shadows of Reality are Greek for bullshit. By the way, it’s actually in Turkey not Greece, the cave I mean. Did you know that Turkey exists in dual but separate parallel dimensions? One exists in the pre-dawn apocalypse and the other in a totalitarian agnostically religious state of semi-democracy. Is it Troy or Gobekli Tepe? Who knows, but my point is that I saw tracers from my inner bitch directing me away from the real me which was dead or didn’t exist, take your pick. And did you know that these things die as soon as you think about them? That fast.” He snapped his fingers in my face.
“Ok Murray, who the fuck are you?”
“Who am I? Good question. I’ll tell you who I am. I’m the Fourth Stooge, that’s who I am. It was Moe who christened me Bitchy. Don’t let anyone tell you that Shlep was the Fourth. I met Moe at a Think Tank in Santa Barbara where we were both submerged in a viscous liquid of Hollywood Showbiz urine and raw sewage from San Quentin. Believe it or not you can actually think in that shit, but don’t ask me how. Anyway, we were finally flushed out of there and we found ourselves in the Cemetery State known as Popularity, as defined by the Wikipedia Encyclopedia of Illiterate Excuses. And what I learned from that experience is this; I should have taken Moe’s slaps, not as Hate from an Asshole, but as Love from a Corpse. So, I left that cemetery as a mist in the twilight and started my own career as a Freelance Bullshit Artist. Does that answer your question?”
After I answered “Yes”, I walked home shaking my head like an old Chihuahua.
He had a truthy way of dealing with questions that weren’t questions. For instance, I decided to ask this, since he said it would be all about me;
“What’s worse, knowing the Truth or dealing with it?”
“The Cult of The Ignorant is populated by the Goat People of Stupidia. I learned this in the Sudan where a local tribal chieftain bought my ass on the black market, which, by the way, is not restricted to blackness. He believed I was a white shaman in a reverse dream sequence of never-ending fantasies fueled by drugs, intellectual pomposity and linguistic slights-of-hand. The Truth, which for you is now Thirty Percent, is that as a slave to him I learned the true value of freedom — which, by the way, ain’t much, despite what you’ve probably been told.”
“What I’ve already learned is that freedom has no value and neither does truth. They just are.”
“Exactly, because Freedom is Fear. The only Freedom you will ever know is and can only be, Experience,” Texted Murray.
“I’m pretty sure I know Fear.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Oh yes I do.”
“I was in denial once myself, when I lived with a cult that believed in Vegetarianism as a way of life. They sacrificed their children to their Great God, Algo Rithma, who predicted with great accuracy when and where each child would die by the hands of their parents. So, their mantra, which at that time was ‘Eat a Carrot, Kill a Kid’ took hold of me for ten years until I actually realized that they had it all wrong, backwards in fact. It actually was, and this ended my denial, which is where I am right now, ‘Eat a kid, Kill a Tree’. My Maugham Smoothie was my validation.”
“And you denied that it was the right thing to do?”
“No, I was in denial that it was part of Schopenhauer’s Will and that I had absolutely no say, per se, in denying it. See?”
“Well, take my latest self-hack for example. I’m going to build a giant phallic symbol out of Legos and start a new Fund Me campaign for Phallic Freedom of Thought. And what, you might ask, is Phallic Freedom of Thought? It is the promotion of an intellectual environment wherein you will be able to think and live phallically without religious, governmental or social recrimination of any kind.”
“Sounds pretty useless.”
‘Well, we all do it in anyway. Why not do it without fear or worry?”
“I thought you said Freedom is Fear.”
“Being free isn’t always desirable. We’re all hooked on Will as our permanent addiction anyway, so, methodoning our addictions with a little fake freedom is o.k. My Fund Me campaign is just a minor intervention, just a minor diversion really. And, of course, a few extra bucks never hurt.”
Sometimes, the sound of laughter can either make you sick or make you wonder why you didn’t get it.
I was sitting on my rusty fire escape when I heard it from the fire escape above.
It was Murray and Cupcake. The old man was laughing and his dog was lip-syncing. They were like an old married couple finishing each other’s thoughts and mouthing each other’s words. No wonder they were laughing.
“That you Murray?” He kept laughing.
“We were just discussing how easy it is these days to make a buck. A man has to earn a living you know. No getting around it. Look at me. I sold my TV, bought a laptop, got a smart phone, changed my look, got subscribers and now look at me. I’m living off the land.”
“There’s no land in Brownsville.”
“Oh yes there is.” He raised his left eyebrow. “It’s the land of where you really live, that is, of course, if you choose to live there. You can GPS your ass or live in the big Strip Joint in the Sky getting lap dances from the Grim Reaper, that’s where. Ever see a ninety-three-year-old Brooklyn Jew in skinny jeans?”
“Take a good look.” He stood up and showed me his trendy jeans, electric orange sneakers and tight-fitting T- Shirt that had something written on the front in large black letters. “See?”
“What’s it say?”
He pointed to the words. “It says, ‘Nothing but Net Bitch’.” He very slowly crawled back through his window and into his apartment. I had no idea that he lived right above me, in 302, the apartment I grew up in.
He poked his head back out of his window and said, “It was a gift from my so-called friends.”
I found out soon enough that his ‘so-called friends’ were mostly The 369.
Who they were didn’t matter much, to them or anyone else that lived in the building. Most of them hung out in front of Murray’s place, a few in front of the building. As far as I was concerned, I had enough stuff to worry about so I never gave them much thought.
They were mostly young men and a few girls, and if reputations mattered, they were supposed to be ruthless. They had a lot of money from whatever they did. Was killing included in whatever? Probably.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why they tolerated me. All I knew was that their friendly nods felt good. Maybe it was Murray. Maybe it was the Family. One thing I soon realized was that it wasn’t dumb luck.
By July 4th my independence and freedom ran out. I ran out of money and food. I couldn’t pay my rent.
Then things started appearing at my door, like food in cardboard boxes. A loose twenty, usually tucked in there somewhere, or sometimes folded into a paper airplane, in case I needed some entertainment.
I couldn’t accept the gifts. I left them with a note thanking them for their kindness.
I ambled around the Super 3 like the unprofessional shoplifter I was. The owner wasn’t fooled for a second and slammed me up against the chicharron rack. The roll and lunch meat fell out from under my shirt.
“Call the cops Frankie. I’m sick of these assholes stealing everything I’ve got. I’m sick of it.”
Frankie the security guard at the Super 3 was an off-duty moonlighting cop that had worked the neighborhood for a long time. He pulled the owner aside and whispered in his ear.
The owner picked up the roll and meat and shoved it in my chest. Then he told me to get the fuck out and don’t come back, ever again. I didn’t say a word and I didn’t apologize. Hunger equalizes everything, including humiliation. I’d never tasted anything that good before or since.
I decided to go to Murray’s for dessert.
“I had a friend once,” said Murray as his eyes teared up. “His name was Carl. We drank schnapps together. We organized Unions and even joined the Merchant Marines together. But he decided to die first and I’ve been waiting for his phone call ever since.” He paused for a minute. “You may be Carl and I can’t take the chance that you aren’t so allow me to put a little schnapps in your tea and give you a welcome home hug.”
He poured some whiskey in my tea and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the differences between law and justice and about the last man to actually think one completely clear thought, Socrates, who by the way, according to Murray, wasn’t as smart as people thought he was. But, his one clear thought, ‘nothing to be preferred before justice’ was pure genius, but the rest of his so-called philosophy wasn’t much.
“When you live in the Dark Web,” said Murray, “you’re homeless. This is a fact that can’t be denied and everyone who lives there, well, they’re all homeless. It’s actually a requirement for living there. It only asks for one thing, your Social Security Number. Then you get the Code of Life.”
Whenever I couldn’t sleep or whenever I felt the sorriest for myself, I somehow found myself in Murray’s apartment. As usual his door was wide open and there were a few 369’s hanging out. One of them, I found out later it was Micro Boy, was sitting next to Murray on his old worn-out brown corduroy sofa. They were having a Rap Chat, tapping out the beat on the sofa. It went something like this:
Murray — “Tell me why you die.
Tell me why you die.”
Young Man — “The Truth Bitch
The Truth Bitch
The Truth Bitch”
Murray — “All I do is lie about the Truth
The Truth ain’t shit.
This shit’s gotta go.
This shit has got to go.”
Young Man — “Tell me bitch, I ain’t shit.
I ain’t shit and I’m crazy.
I love her and I’m crazy.
Crazy kills babies.
Crazy lives till you die.”
That conversation went on for another thirty minutes. They could see me standing there, listening, but it didn’t matter. The young man got up, kissed Murray on the top of his head and said. “I feel you Bitch, I feel you.”
Murray answered. “O.K., but don’t fuck with me. You feel me now?”
The young man didn’t answer right away, but after he thought about it, he smiled and said, “Yeah, I feel you.” As the young man started to leave, Murray pulled him back, gave him a hug, slapped him on his ass and sent him on his way.
Everyone, except for one guard, left, because they could see that the old man was tired. I hung out for a while. Murray sat back down and closed his eyes. He slept deep and free. I kept an eye on him for a while and thought about how much I loved teaching children, like he did.
When Murray finally woke up, he said, “I’m going to call you Carl from now on and all of my so-called friends will also call you Carl. Why? Because Carl would have liked that.” He fell asleep again. I left the front door open, as always.
August is technically not a month, and here’s why.
It was August 11th, and Murray’s door was closed, that’s why. I knocked on it loud enough to wake the dead, which, in this case, turned out to be Bertha Sexton, Murray’s next-door neighbor.
“If you’re looking for Murray, don’t waste your time. He’s in jail. The old fool.”
“Thank you, Bertha. I found Cupcake barking in front of my door.”
“That dog’s as stupid as that old fool, maybe stupider.”
The Legion Street jail was in the back of the Police Station. I talked my way in to see Murray, who looked happy to see me. He grinned out a big smile and flashed gold braces that covered his dentures. Some kind of a code was printed on them.
He looked like he needed a straight man, so I volunteered.
I pointed to his mouth and said, “What the hell is that?”
“It’s The Code of Life, which is now my message to the world. As soon as you see it you immediately get it. But if you don’t, well, then you’re not one of my so-called friends.”
He whispered it in my ear. “Now you know, Carl.”
The cops released him to me, pending further investigation. There had been a sting operation on The 369 and Murray got caught in the net. None of The 369 said they knew him and that he just happened to be walking by.
As we left the station there were reporters waiting. Murray flashed The Code of Life smile and pointed to his mouth with a peace sign. We got on the bus that took us home and when we got off the bus he paused for a moment and gently put his finger on my chest. “Don’t ever believe that FDR was a Fellow Traveler. He force-fed America gold-plated gag-proof geese that were cooked in the heat of battle, not the one from WWII, but the real one called Economic Instability, false work for fake money to cure a sickness caused by greedy capitalists who jumped out of windows and landed on pillows filled with counterfeit fortunes.”
We walked home slowly from the bus stop. “Come have lunch with me and bring You-Know-Who. I miss him.”
I retrieved You-Know-Who, Cupcake’s new alias, and gave him back to the old man and when I did, the old mans’ eyes smiled. We ate soft-boiled eggs, Gruyère cheese triangles, the kind that came covered in foil, pumpernickel bread and butter and, of course, hot tea. It was good. I was hungry again. I left Murray’s door open when he fell asleep. I didn’t want to look back.
With the new school year approaching, Tweets poured in from the Family wanting me to teach again. More stray twenties from someone kept finding their way under my door. I needed answers.
Murray was sitting on his corduroy sofa in his underwear and Mets cap. He was rereading another faded copy of The Daily Worker.
He laughed out loud as he read it and looked up at me over his reading glasses. He said, “The silence of the deaf is the symphony of the blind. Slowmo Livin’ said that. Of course, that wasn’t his real name. His real name was Shlomo Levin. I changed it for him to protect the innocent. He lived right here on Strauss Street and he was a very smart man. He was a Yiddish philosopher, smarter than Socrates actually. He told me this once: ‘Give me a good piece of Gefilte Fish and I’ll tell you the correct time.” He’s gone now, but he was a very smart man.”
He stopped his monologue and returned to his reading. I read the back page while he read his memories. It was a full-page ad for a Trade Union Meeting of Furriers in the Garment District. Whoever went to that meeting was probably dead by now.
Murray looked up at the ceiling. “It’s easy to Stalinize a Rockefeller bum. All you have to do is throw him a dime and promise him happiness and security.” He closed his eyes. “In 1938, Stalin and Gandhi had a bromance, a little-known fact. It developed rapidly from there and they had an illegitimate son named Murray. Want some tea?”
“I learned how to brew tea in Cambodia when I was part of a Kibbutz in Phnom Penh. I was hired as a Cultural Envoy for the Cambodian Government, by Slowmo, believe it or not, who had been contracted by the Cambodian Government to unconfuse Confucianism for the people, the Cambodian people that is. The Chinese weren’t confused, because they invented it, which I’m still not totally convinced of. Anyway, I was supposed to start the first Cambodian Kibbutz. And I’ll tell you this, Kibbutz’s not located in Israel are hard enough to establish, but in Cambodia, well, you can just imagine. Then, for whatever reason, we thought we could homestead in Angkor Wat which had been designated at that time as a Dead Zone. Well, we succeeded for a while and besides learning how to brew tea we also learned how to cry in Tongues. I eventually left Cambodia when a comic, who shall remain nameless, did USO Shows for all Jews left behind in Concentration Camps that had been converted into Kibbutz’s by the Russians. But then, as fate would have it, his bird became paralyzed and his mind froze when he lost his shtick, more commonly known as the ability to make people laugh. And when he started his own Cable Show, Demolition Derby for Washed-Up Catskillians, the same thing happened to me. I didn’t have any shtick to lose but I used to have what is known as sanity. I lost my sanity to a girl named Sheila who twisted my arm to become a Catholic. She lived somewhere in Indiana. When I finally told her no because I was a Hindi of the lowest caste sweeping up cow shit and calling it my pleasure she cried like a baby and kicked my ass out into the street, a full twenty feet to the curb mind you. I call it Demolition Derby, Murray style. ”
He took a breath but kept staring at me, like he all of a sudden recognized me. I went along with my new identity and slept well that night. In the morning when I woke up, I found another twenty under my door with a note attached to it. It read:
Thought you could use this.
My so-called friends are working
on your situation. I anticipate
P.S. Great to have you back”
I didn’t see much of Murray after that. Occasionally I would pass by his door to see how he was doing and would usually see him Rapping with different kids, texting on his phone or reading his Daily Workers. He looked frail and sadder. Cupcake wasn’t around anymore.
The summer went by hot and slow. I got by somehow with help from friends and ‘so-called’ friends. Two weeks before the school year was supposed to start, a grass roots campaign started to have me reinstated to my old teaching position. There were student protests in front of the school and in front of Kaplan’s home.
Maybe Kaplan and the Board had had enough. They offered to reinstate me if I would relent in my use of social media to teach. I told them ‘no’ and walked out of her office. The students somehow knew I declined her offer and cheered me as I left. Over the next few days, the protests grew.
I kept to myself as much as possible as the new school year approached. Two days before the school year began, the heat forced me out on my fire escape again. There were low murmurs coming from Murray’s place so I went upstairs and saw a small group of his so-called friends who had gathered around him. When I entered, the crowd put their arms around me. I looked at Murray and knew he was dead.
If you’re free, you should be afraid, according to Murray. I felt free and afraid. That’s why I legally changed my name again. I was now Carl, officially. I bitched about everything to everyone.
Maybe, just maybe, I became a consultant to the New York City Board of Education on their New Ventures in Education Through Social Media. Or, maybe I became a liaison to the Dark Web. Or maybe we’re all Thirty Percent Subscribers. But, as long as we can make our own decisions, we can decide for ourselves who we are and who we want to be. That’s Freedom, Murray Style.
Bennie Rosa has been writing short stories and poetry for many years. After a career in the business world, he decided to put all of his efforts into writing. His works usually reflect the events of the day and his social commentary tries to offer an alternative perspective for readers to consider. Writing is creating, according to Bennie. Creating is Living.