We sat together on a crowded bus. His hair was slicked back, beat into submission by pomade. I imagined his pillowcase at home; sunk deep in a washer, water running off it like ice from a tin roof. He smelled of last night’s booze.
The bus stopped and he swayed forward, his movement graceful, like a dancer. Every time he opened his mouth I got a whiff of whiskey, a whiffskey, I thought. My amusement felt shameful.
Greenpoint was filled with men like him; empty, Polish faces regularly stumbled by me on sidewalks like zombies out of a black and white horror flick. They reminded me of the drunken bum from a video game I played as a kid. Back then I dodged them on a cartoon bike as I tossed newspapers from a black sack. Now, I simply crossed the street on wary feet of my own. I avoided them entirely.
But it was 8:45 in the morning and this man was on his way to work. I could smell a hint of aftershave and toothpaste beneath the sour smell of bile and alcohol. I covered my nose with my scarf and wrestled with a gag. It was too early.
The man’s black boots, button down, and slicked back hair took me back to my youth. And even though his smell was pungent and unfamiliar, I felt warmth. Detroit. 1979. Puffy blue carpeting, porcelain vases, plastic seat covers, covered pots bubbling up with potatoes, Mamé in a moo-moo. Four generations of women under one roof.
He unzipped the bag, which lay at his feet among the high heels and sneakers and pulled a Gatorade bottle out of the bag; it had its label removed. The bottle had been emptied of its original florescent colored contents and was filled with what looked to be iced tea. He turned it upright and let the brown liquid pour between his chapped lips.
I bit back another gag. Last night’s booze, which had been on its way out the door was greeted by its morning relief.
I watched my great grandfather die. He lived in Detroit in a house in Hamtramck. We called him Pappé, his wife, Mamé and I was his favorite. I remember sitting on his lap, belly full of Polish food, head full of milk. Before he became sick, he worked on cars and got his hands dirty. He was just like any other hard working American immigrant, white hair, aged beyond his years, his hands were callused and sore from a long history of working on an assembly line. His sleeveless button downs exposed his liver spots, his skin smelled of starch, mothballs, and onions. He was great even after he began to die.
I waited for him to get better. One of my earliest memories is of him hunched over a doubled-up, brown paper bag as he vomited white chunks. I was 5 at the time, maybe six. Pieces of him would come up with a cough and fall into the bag before him, pieces of my Great Grandfather, like the guts of a pumpkin. I thought this is what booze does.
Detroit wasn’t the same after that and to a certain degree, neither was I. Pappé eventually died and I developed a criminally intense crush on George Burns.
The man capped his Gatorade bottle one more time and placed it back into his bag in a noble attempt at making it last longer. He became more and more toxic as the minutes went by. He was killing himself. Each sip let more and more life out of him.
“When George Burns dies. Please don’t tell me. I don’t think I can deal with it.”
”Ok.” She said. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” I said.
Two minutes went by and the man pulled from the bottle again. He took a bigger gulp and let the alcohol fall past his taste buds; it made a beeline for his stomach. The bus lunged forward over the bridge connecting Greenpoint to Long Island City, Eastern Europe to someplace new. The man’s belly let out a small rumble and he soothed it with another swallow. Soon, the shakes would return as well as the worry.
I folded the letter, sealed the envelope and handed it to my mother. She stared at wondering how to say what she needed to say.
“You can’t mail him a letter, Michele. He’s in heaven. But you can pray. He’ll hear you.”
I used to sit in the living room for hours listening to that record, the needle would move gracefully over its grooves letting out soft static beneath the music. When I was little, I thought all music sounded that way. The words would hit me differently each time. When I was little my only friends were my relatives, my relatives and George Burns.
I once watched a man go into convulsions on a busy sidewalk along Bedford Avenue. It was 9:00 AM on a Saturday. He dropped to the ground, body fully taught as it shook violently. His brain begged for more alcohol like an old car running on fumes. Even as the paramedics wheeled him away on a stretcher, I knew he’d be out drinking later that day. This sort of cycle happens all the time in the neighborhood; hope is destroyed by the onslaught of alcohol. These men weren’t homeless but they lacked the notion of home.
I was too young to know if Pappé had given up on living or if the hardness of living finally did him in. I have no idea if he was happy. And I’m not sure my memories can be trusted anyway, they’re half remembered, half imagined through photographs, and half inbred by other memories. But I see him all the time, on dried up, wrinkled faces, beneath dirty fingernails, along the soft spots next to rough calluses, reflected on the windshield of an old Ford, behind the blowing curtain of a tenement building.