Today I decided it was time to find out more about Novak. He was standing in the sun on the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue just across from the new post office. My zip code is 10009 and unfortunately for me, that means I am married to this particular post office – it has always been the meanest most inadequately run place I have ever set foot in, a full diatribe will come in a later blog. For now, suffice it to say, knowing someone has to go there to pick up a parcel can break up a family.
Perhaps this deathly mission is what provoked me to speak to Novak. It may be a dying deed – after all, the term “going postal” came from the countless incidents of post office workers mowing down the customers and fellow workers with a rattling gun.
He was clean-shaven and seemingly sober. I estimated him to be younger than my first impression, maybe in his early fifties. He moved his upper body without difficulty and, but for his filthy soiled trousers, he seemed almost salvageable from the street. He had acquired a clean shirt and from the waist up looked normal. But still, as he stood leaning on his wheelchair, it was clear that there was no turning back for him.
“Hi, I met you before a long time ago, you won’t remember, how are you?”
He raised his eyebrow and, with a glint in his eyes, he held out his cupped and weathered hand. I ignored it.
“What’s your name?”
“Novak”, he shouted, “Vat’s your nem?”
He squinted his eyes.
“Yeah. Where are you from?”
“I from Poll-land. Where you from?”
“I’m from Ireland”
He seemed to find that a little amusing, his curiosity was awakening, you could tell that he wasn’t used to talking to the customers. I continued to disarm him.
“When did you come to America?”
“I coms, durty years ago.”
He was smiling now and shouting a little aggressively, he wasn’t sure he wanted to behave normal.
“What did you work at when you came here first?”
“Clubs, I work in clubs. Eight hours, I was earn, one undred and pifty dollah for eight hours.”
I was pleased to hear him say this, he had some pride, he was acknowledging that his life had gone wrong. Before, he seemed to be trying to project an arrogance, he didn’t owe anybody anything.
“Where did you live?”
“I liff, I just liff”
He pulled down the neck of his blue shirt to show me his shoulder.
“It’s mettle, I have mettle ere, and down here.”
He shows me his hip.
“I have metell havery-veer. Whatever you do, don’t sleep over deere!”
He was pointing across the way up towards 14th Street, with the nod of his head.
“What do you mean?”
He pulled down his lip.
“They kutt me! Here and here.”
He pointed inside his mouth and at a swollen gash on his forehead, his face was so weathered and scarred, it was impossible to see any difference between his newly acquired complaint and the ones of yesterday.
“Don’t sleep in dat park behind dat, they will beata you up and robb you.”
He was talking about the small park behind Beth Israel Hospital, a tiny sanctuary of green grass and ivy shaded by trees and a broken circle of park benches surrounding an ornate water fountain. I had no intention of ever sleeping there, I needn’t tell ye. Now it seemed that he and I were on the same page, he was warning me about the dangerous places to sleep on the street. I liked the fact that we were now communicating man to man. Yes, I intended giving him some money, and with Novak he had always given the impression that this was the only reason to communicate. But now this wasn’t the case, we were just talking.
“I sometimes would dake One Undred and Pifty dollahs, but den my moddah got seek, I send all my money back to Poll-Land, she get seek.”
“Oh that’s a shame, so you had to look after her from here?”
“Yes, she got seek, ever-ting vent, I lose my job.”
I had a dollar in my hand to give him.
“I am a musician Novak, I don’t have any money, but I’ll give you this.”
“I used to play dee acordian.”
“Really? Which one – button key or piano?”
“I donna know.”
He dismissed this as an unnecessarily complicated question.
“Iss impossible, you need two brains, one for each side”, he demonstrated with his hands.
“But the brain has two sides!”
“No, only one brain, impossible.”
He took the dollar bill and seemed genuinely grateful.
“You got a cigarette?”
“Don’t tell me you smoke as well as drink”, I goaded with a laugh.
He smiled with devilment and immediately switched his attention to another guy that seemed to be preparing to give him money.
“You got a smoke?”, he said cheekily, suggesting that the guy should be good for something.