Brooklyn happens with a knish and fried rice. It happens with blaring boom boxes and gum stains. Brooklyn happens from Red Hook to Rockaway. It happens with a morning reverie of jack-hammers. It happens with handball and dominoes. It happens whether you love it or not.
During my early days I had a tiny room in the front of a 5-floor walk-up railroad apartment in Sunset Park. I’d moved in with an old friend, Cal, who settled the other end, with a clear view of the fingernail polish remover factory and the dusty harbor on the horizon. The two front windows in my room overlooked the Brooklyn Queens Expressway which streamed by just 20 feet from my sleeping head dividing me from the inland circuitry of the ongoing city.
The massive all night derby of commuters lulled me to sleep at night. The air conditioner huffed hot black air into the 10 x 10 room. I’d light a cigarette and watch the carousel of light from passing traffic circle the room, the design of the iron fire escape outside my window stretched like cursive tearing across the walls, like the script of a writer scrawling a thought before it gets away.
Long summer days were spent stripped to bare skin, sucking malt liquor on the tin roof, hucking water balloons at the Catholic priest piously protesting outside the abortion clinic. In order to do so you had to clear the massive BQE which Cal and I were able to do only every once in a while.
Water bugs owned the night, parading through our linens, drowning in our vegetable oil, indulging in their own Sandstone orgies under the dish mat. It wasn’t unusual to find one in the evenings, parked on our pillows like a hotel breath mint.
When it rained the basement would fill to the brim and the water level would even climb the stairs of the bottom floor. We were at the base of a hill, literally the gutter of Brooklyn, marching with soaked socks in and out of potholes of buttery water to get to our 9 to 5.
La Paloma was our supermarket on 3rd Avenue. It too accumulated whatever rolled down the hill from the higher slopes of Brooklyn, selling hand-me-downs of carrots, lettuce, and other produce that had long since seen its sell-by date.
There are windows of wedding cakes and 25cent horsy rides on my way to work. A frosty white hedge of foam settles on the shore by the abandoned navy docks. Boys in muscle shirts drawn up above the belly have set up camp around a Camaro performing some kind of surgery from all sides of the hood. On almost every floor there is a tiny window that frames the face of an old woman peering out to see what’s happening on the street below. She will sit in an uncomfortable chair watching for hours at a time.
I make it to the subway early enough to fade into the morning commuters. By my watch I’ll be on 35th St in the city before 10:30am.
This is how Cal and I afford the luxuries we have procured.
Take a corner office on the 25th floor of the Hope Abundy building in the center of a major cluster of business offices in midtown. That feeling of insignificance sets in, like standing under the stars, undetectable, impossible to stir up any suspicion.
In this corner office a man named Ronald butters his coffee cake excessively. I watch him in the morning, ever aware in my scrutiny that this man is my boss. He takes the plastic knife for all it’s got, gouging the cake with the still solid brick of butter. It seems to communicate a sense that this man does not worry or even occupy his time with the commotion that surrounds him.
Our boss has got a mouth from the south shore of Boston, red cavernous skin, and white whicker hair that fountains from the center of his head. He wears comfortable shoes that would fall off in a sprint.
Two years ago Ronald sat alone in the office and started to procure what is now his fortune. He rolled in two chairs, a desk and a fax machine. He called contractors from Mississippi, Wyoming, Idaho. He sat in a dark corner of the office and spoke on the phone.
“Hi, my name is Jeb Levy and I'm calling from Levy, Fitzgerald and Associates. Does anyone owe you money?”
This is how it goes.
A fresh start homebuyer decides to pull up the old linoleum and put in hardwood floors.
The homebuyer calls a contractor who works for three long weeks on the project.
A contractor is chipping up pieces of linoleum flooring while the homebuyer, some middle-aged Idahoan oversees him.
Weeks later in the same home, the middle-aged Idahoan is on the phone looking down at his floor. He realizes he wanted a different cut of wood and decides not to pay the contractor.
This is where Ronald offers his services.
Ronald makes calls out, fishing for piqued contractors across the country.
“Does anybody owe you money?”
He sends out faxes of pages of false legalese promising to retrieve the money for the contractors with the compensation of 20 percent of what is collected. This is all above a line that says “sign here.” If the contractors take the bait, the pages are faxed back, signed and dated. Most contractors don’t have much as far as representation. They figure it’s worth a shot and it costs them nothing.
This is where Ronald gets to have fun.
He calls the homebuyer, says he's calling from New York City, says he's part of a law firm - something with a strong name - let's say “Levy, Fitzgerald, & Associates.” Who's Fitzgerald? Who are the associates? Who cares? So long as Ronald can talk it up. And that he does; like Teddy Ruxbin on a car battery, he's unstoppable. His imagination runs wild, threatening swat teams, drive-by shootings, knee breakers. Brilliantly orchestrated. You gotta hand it to him.
The middle-aged Idahoan stands on the hack wood flooring of his new home. He is looking out his kitchen window, over empty rolling hills. He is on the phone. We can hear Ronald's voice describing the fiery Hell that this man will face if he does not fork over the money owed the contractor for work done. The homeowner's wife and children are frolicking in the foreground outside. A home assembled aluminum slide, monkey bars, a kid’s playland. Over the hills he sees the tanks heading in his direction, pressing deep caterpillar tracks toward his home.
This poor sap homebuyer with ugly hardwood floors is led to believe that legions of troops are descending on his property and that he best pay or be taken out. This happens more than you think. People are stupid.
This is how it goes.
The middle-aged Idahoan summons his wife and children into the house, shaking in fear.
“Get in! Quick!”
Ronald sits on the 25th floor of the Hope Abundy building in his underwear on a milk crate and drinking out-dated Metamucil. His stupid shoes are like slippers and there’s a greasy bit of coffee cake hanging off the phone receiver.
In less than a week there is a check cut in the name of “Levy, Fitzgerald, and Associates” for 20 thousand, 70 thousand, 2 million dollars and somehow the contractor's information gets lost, via shredder. Ronald collects everything in full, completely. You’ve got to hand it to him.
The company needs to expand. It's suddenly become significant. So Ronald finds some new hires.
Eventually, there are six cubicles manned by the few degenerate people desperate enough to make a buck. This is where Cal and I come in. I usually come in late.
“Hi, does anybody owe you money?”
The man who calls himself Peter Vega (Cal) is sitting in the cubicle to my left. He’s landed three leads already today and it’s only ten o’clock. The air tastes like malt liquor.
It’s the worst to witness Ronald, somewhere near the end of his life, leading this squad of con-artists, the leathery gloss of a photograph taped to the wall beside him. It’s his daughter. Maybe his daughter’s daughter. Maybe it’s someone he loves dearly.
I should stick to the script: “Hi! My name is (your name here) and I’m calling from (company name here) to see if I might be able to help you. If someone is illegally indebted to you, you have a right to be represented! (AWAIT RESPONSE. IF NONE, CONTINUE READING) We only ask a small percentage of the money owed to you and, if there are any debtors in your books, we will get that money back to you! We understand the rights of compensation for hard labor and we stand by our devotion to retrieving everything in full! (AWAIT RESPONSE. IF NONE, CONTINUE READING) Do you happen to have anybody that owes you money? (IF YES, OFFER TO SEND FAX. IF NO, HANG UP) You need legal representation from a strong firm in New York City. I’ll fax over some paperwork for you to sign and then we can get the ball rolling. How’s that sound?” (REMEMBER, PEOPLE CAN HEAR YOUR SMILE OVER THE PHONE!!!)
My head on the oily pressed wood of the desk, the recurrent one-liners from every surrounding cubicle, the soft metallic clamor of the city 25 stories below; I try to think of anything but where I am. There’s a French girl who works in an adjoining office on our floor and I often see her in line at the shared bathroom in the hallway. I think of her. I think of what she might think of me.
Midtown at noon is like the inside of a pinball machine on TILT. People take motion in their goings and comings in a calm riot, holstering and unholstering their mobile devices, doing things that 30 years ago would have seemed like magic. Propelled on high octane coffee, these nimble New Yorkers have evolved (an evolution or a mutation) in order to sustain themselves, maybe a bigger heart, a third lung, an optimal way to endure the stimulus of the ever-flashing battleground of this claustrophobic metropolis.
Cal puts a pencil between my ribs and I’m up and faking nonsensical job-related banter in his direction. Ronald cruises by momentarily to get a glimpse at our progress. I’ve made a point to jot down a list of fake names and monetary sums so that he might be led to believe I’ve landed a good stack of leads.
I’m breaking for the bathroom once Ronald returns to his office. The floor has a heartbeat and I’m hardly awake to breathe but it’s better angling myself down the hallway once I’m out of sight of my boss.
A few cool drops from the sink and I can see less than triple in the mirror. Things will get better – a sort of dutiful supposition to encourage a work ethic. I exit to find two burly individuals pulling into the hallway, toward me at a fast clip.
By the time I’m remotely alert there’s a class ring between my teeth and I’m spun like a window ornament in the direction of the other top-heavy man in red flannel. They’re voicing some kind of aggression towards me. Cursing causes the walls to buzz. A widening crack in the adjoining office door reveals one big brown French eye.
I’m already bleeding and my gums feel enormous in my mouth. My teeth are on the floor. My first thought is how strange it is to look at them without a mirror. Despite all this I choose this moment to wave to the eye in the door.
All the while the two men have made good work of me. I realize the only thing holding me up is the centrifugal force from being volleyed between their fists.
On the floor I can smell the sort of sweaty salt that comes from hands and sometimes spit. They really scraped the cilia clean - taking their time to merrily hock and release a fair lode into my eyes.
They fade into the walls. A clanking tool belt suddenly gives the whole thing context.
I walk in and show myself to Ronald, who stops short on his tirade and yet still holds the receiver to his chest so as not to disturb the client on the other end. I look at the picture of his daughter. I talk in blood gulps.
We’re going to take a cab this time back to Brooklyn. There’s nothing like Brooklyn.
"Hit Me Like You Mean It, " by Farid Nassif
Farid Nassif was born in Boston, studied Literature at Bennington College in Vermont and finished his MA in English at Brooklyn College.He recently finished recording a series of original short stories with best-selling novelist and New York's The Moth creator, George Dawes Green. His book, Civilized Man, is accessible on amazon.com and bn.com. Farid is now working on a second book while dedicating his days teaching at Fordham University, Brooklyn College and LaGuardia Community College.
The trees outside Starbucks are high on coffee from the all-day runoff and spillage—the piping hot overfills. Hispanic children book it in flip-flops around the Laundromat on Ditmas, beaning each other with RedHots, swimming in pepper-glazed Cheetos. They want sugar water. They want the green one, the yellow one, the blue one.