Sami just moved his store into a bigger space around the corner. He sells liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets. No recession for Sami. He’s got plenty of customers keeping the business healthy. I stop by for a bottle of cheap Chianti to carry into the pizzeria down the street. It’s barely half a step up from that jug burgundy my grandmother used to chug while watching Bobo Brazil and Bruno Sammartino butt heads back in the old days when TVs had rabbit ears and people could believe wrestling wasn’t rigged. From her I learned that schvartzes have thick skulls and that French people are dirty. Thanks, gramps. The pizzeria is where I go to watch what’s playing on the flat-screen television hanging on the wall above the Snapple case. It’s like taking a tour of Bedlam in the company of Karloff. Supposedly ordinary people behaving like psychopaths in front of a chittering, giggling audience. Squirrels munching acorns are infinitely more interesting than these critters, with their painted faces and idiot grins, these steroidal, siliconed monsters who chew the scenery then spit it back up in jets of green bile. I’m eating my sausage slice and drinking purple swill out of a paper cup, trying to determine whether I’ve got anything in common with those Real People up there. It’s a helluva conundrum, poot.
The other patrons follow everything that happens on the screen, oil and tomato sauce dripping down their shiny chins, blinking their raw red eyes from time to time like monitor lizards. Every so often they let out a little puff of noise, something between a snicker and a sob, inhale, then bite off another rubbery piece of pie. Occasionally one of them finds something hilarious, cracks up, and launches a clump of unchewed mozzerella into space. Half of the crew are Giants fans and the other half root for the Jets. When the commercials come on, they hurl insults back and forth at each other. After a full day on the job trying to figure out how to sell literary fiction to the so-called reading public, this is about all the excitement I can take.
Carmen comes into Sami’s, she’s a rail-thin middle-aged lady with plucked eyebrows, a purple kerchief, and a beige raincoat. I notice a slight tremor when she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a wad of bills and buys five dollars worth of Instant Win Scratch Off cards. She always pays with singles. Then she goes outside and stands under Sami’s new maroon awning and methodically scratches off the coating on the cards to uncover the numbers underneath. Once she has checked each card and sees that she hasn’t got a winner, she walks to the corner trash bin, carefully tears each card into four pieces and throws them out. All the while, she is talking to herself in a private patois, exhorting herself to do better next time. After pacing a few minutes, she goes back into the store and buys another five cards. She does this every Friday until she runs out of singles. When that happens she walks down to the park and talks to the pigeons.
After I’m done with the pizza and the Chianti and the mayhem on TV, I walk for a while in the cool of the early September evening listening to the traffic leaving New York. The light is the same light I remember hovering above the Hudson on September 11, 2001. And the wind is blowing out of the Northwest the same way. Nine years is nothing. The history of my life is filled with chance moments.
I’m getting into the rhythm of my stride, taking deep breaths, taking in the man-made world all around me, its glitter, the massive structures belying their fragility. No, Sami doesn’t need to play the lottery -- he’s making his fortune selling the tickets. I pass the pink stucco Iglesias Pentecostal on the corner of 7th and Madison and stop for minute. The congregation is singing “Alabaré a mi señor.” It’s a joyful noise. I think to myself, here's another place where business is healthy. Father T. used to say, “When we sing with each other, we’re singing in the lord.” Back then, I thought I knew what he meant. I peer through the open door into the little lighted church. It wouldn’t surprise me if Carmen were in there, singing along, having washed and put on some fresh clothes, her arms raised to heaven. Nothing surprises me, everything is mysterious.