“Hey, old man,” Frankie called out from across the street. “Got any money for me,” he continued, provoking laughter from his two brutish companions.
I didn’t turn to look. I knew who it was. I knew his father and his father’s father.
“Don’t let him bother you,” Carlos advised as I picked up juice and fruit at his bodega. Like everybody on the block, Carlos paid Frankie money—a tribute to protect him from the man who he pays to protect him. A hundred and ten years after Abraham Lincoln, whites don’t prey on us anywhere near as savagely as our own kind. “He is not worth thinking about,” Carlos said, slowly making my change.
“I don’t think about him, Carlos. He thinks about me and what he believes I did to his grandfather.”
Carlos reflected a moment, rubbing the grain of his uneven gray whiskers as though that might help him conjure up the voice of wisdom. “I remember.”
Carlos made me a sandwich and I walked over to the neighborhood park—at least what remained of the park—on the corner of Vestry and Dyson; a little pocket of green life on the upper west side of Manhattan.
A dozen years ago, this was a thriving part of the Harlem community. Storefronts were polished bright and fresh produce and ripe fruit were tumbling out of their street stalls. People had a sense of optimism and opportunity. Today the police patrol more diligently since the neighborhood flare-up last summer that almost incinerated my world forever.
My turkey, cheese, and tomato sandwich didn’t taste fresh. Carlos does his best to buy good produce, though it was clearly a losing effort. The rents go up. The kids steal from him at every opportunity. The days of confident fervor are behind us. I am the community, the community is me. We both had a chance long ago to make something out of our lives.
“Terrible.” I finish the stale remains of my sandwich as an argument erupts in the schoolyard a block away.
Jimmy, Frankie’s grandfather, was once my best friend. Our parents were friends for many years too. The older we grew, the more it was obvious that Jimmy would not be able to cast his evil saddle from his back. He cursed those he once loved, including friends and family. By the time he was in his early twenties he had been in jail for a series of aggravated misdemeanors, fathered an illegitimate child and, it was said, nearly beat a man to death across the river in New Jersey over an ounce of crack.
“May I sit here?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
“Do you feed the pigeons too,” she asked, comparing the crumpled bag in her hand with the one in mine. She took a few crumbs, rolled them between her fingers, and cast them out, much further than you would imagine for such a slight effort.
Their number had grown, and everyone from Carlos to the lazy superintendent in my building cursed their existence. The streets were dirtier because of their pestilential presence. Carlos called them flying rats.
“I hate pigeons.” I could see that my words alarmed the woman.
“They’re God’s creatures.”
“So are we.”
The woman turned from me. She kept a tight rein around the neck of her brown bag. “Have you ever had a pet?”
“A cat or a dog?”
I couldn’t, for the life of me, think that was any of her business. “A dog.”
“And you fed it and played with it and made sure it was safe?”
“A dog is not a bird that relieves itself on cars and awnings and stairs and people standing on street corners and spreads its filth from rooftop to rooftop.”
“I know it’s not the same thing.”
“His name was Rusty.” I hadn’t thought about him in years.
“Mine was Benny.”
“He was a Cocker Spaniel.”
“Benny was a mutt. A cross between a Shepherd, Collie, and everything else.”
“I wouldn’t keep a dog in the city anymore.”
“That’s why I have Felix.”
I hoped she was talking about a cat. “I’m allergic to cats.”
“Oh, that is too bad.”
I could see she was genuinely disappointed. “I’d rather live alone anyway.”
“Why do you say that?”
I had been saying that for so long I couldn’t recall my rationale anymore. After my second marriage, it just didn’t seem to matter. I would move through the days and weeks and years with whatever purpose I picked up along the way. “I don’t know.”
“My name is Betty.”
“Robert. Robert Hall.”
I hadn’t spoken to a strange woman in so long I wasn’t certain I was even pronouncing my name right. I hadn’t spoken to a white woman in twice as long. Slowly the pigeons congregated in small groups nearby. Then a few waddled over to her side of the bench. They knew better than to come looking to me for nourishment.
“There used to be a clothing store with that name.”
“I’ve heard of it. I’m no relation.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that.”
“I’m Robert Hall of Brooklyn and New York. One of the less fortunate Halls.”
“Are you going to feed them?”
“Not now,” she said, clasping the bag to her side like she did her purse. “I think it would upset you.”
I’ve always believed you make your own path, you pray to your own God and you’re responsible for your success and failures. I respect the luck of the draw and accept the lack of fairness in the world. I liked the fact that at seventy-three I still have the curiosity to inquire and the ability to remember. And I just couldn’t recall the last time anyone was so concerned about my welfare. “What happened to your dog?”
“Benny? What a rascal. He would sneak up behind you and bark. He wouldn’t give you any warning and he was so cunning you could never hear him coming. So if you had a glass of water in your hand or piece of clothing or were on the phone, he would scare the daylights out of you.”
“He sounds like a character.”
“He was my best friend.”