FOR the first five or six years I lived in Brooklyn I used to get my hair cut at Sal’s, a small, doll-like Italian man who habitually wore a burgundy smock and had a place on Smith Street amid the pre-gentrified sprawl of nail salons and social clubs. Sal had emigrated from Naples as a young boy, cutting hair on the liner on the way over to pay his way. He had a huge mural of the Bay of Naples covering the rear wall of his store, complete with white-capped waves crashing against a rocky shorefront. A couple of plush red barber’s chairs faced a row of mirrors to the right as you walked in.
Sal’s was a great place for harvesting the latest gossip of the mainly heavy-set Italian-American men who frequented it. They would come in, lower their bulks into the chair with a sigh, and Sal would flutter about them, snipping, spritzing and powdering with feminine delicacy. Conversations such as this were typical:
“Hey, Sal—ya know Joe?”
“Yeah, Joe. You know—on Degraw Street. You know. Joe.”
“He’s a good guy. He respects me, so I respect him. That’s what it’s about. He gives me respect, so I respect him, too.”
“Yeah, he knows me, Joe does. He respects me. I respect him. But you disrespect him, he’ll break your legs. He’s a good guy.”
The problem with Sal was that no matter how I tried to frame my requests he always gave me the same haircut: a brutal buzz cut at the sides that made me look like a pizza delivery boy. For a while I got my hair cut by a pneumatic six-foot blonde named Lisa, who worked out of her shoebox-sized apartment in Tudor City in Manhattan. Lisa was great; she shaped my hair in a way it never had been before, standing behind me and raising up little tufts judiciously to examine in the mirror. She would also occasionally rest her breasts, unintentionally I think, on the top of my head as I sat there staring straight ahead. I always left her sweet-smelling living room, covered in glossy magazines and hair care products, with a sense of having been unfaithful to my wife.
But Tudor City was quite a hike from Brooklyn, and Lisa was expensive—about four times as much as Sal, who charged ten dollars with a few dollars’ tip. Then my wife, somewhat reluctantly, suggested I try Jerry, the guy who used to cut her family’s hair when she was a girl and still cut her parents’ hair in their home in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Jerry was something of a family legend, a pathologically loquacious failed actor who would waltz into their living room every few months—he lived just a few blocks away—and before unpacking his little bag of scissors casually refresh himself from their liquor cabinet with a large shot of whatever was handy. Jerry’s non-stop monologues about his favorite movies and TV shows, the news, his personal life, and anything else that came into his head, turned what should have been a brisk forty-five minute visit into an excruciating marathon. Sometimes it would be three hours before my in-laws, limp with exhaustion, could expel him from their doorstep. Yet because of his undoubted skill and long years of service Jerry had acquired, if not honorary family membership exactly, then at least a tenure of sorts; dispensing with his services was unthinkable.
I was nervous when I rang his doorbell a week later on a cold January day, standing on the stoop of a grand Brownstown near Prospect Park. Hearing stories about Jerry was different from actually meeting him in the flesh. There was a sudden crackle from the intercom: “Be right down,” said an irritated voice, and a moment later the door slid open to reveal a wild-looking figure with a huge white Afro the texture of vanilla-whip, wearing a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup tee-shirt and suspenders. His cheeks looked reddened, as though he’d been clawing at them, and a pair of fierce blue-gray eyes stared out beneath thick white eyebrows. “Come on up,” said the figure, and turned and headed back up the stairs without waiting.
I followed him up to the second floor and through the door he had disappeared into. For a second, I thought I must have made a mistake and walked into a closet: the wall in front of me was no more than four feet away and I could almost have touched it with an outstretched arm. Every inch was covered in pots and pans, tins and jars, whisks and spatulas, and other kitchen implements hanging from hooks. To my left a fridge, yellowed like an ancient tooth, stood covered with magnets and newspaper clippings. I stepped in and closed the door behind me. Once shut, it’s inner side revealed itself to be equally covered with kitchen implements, obliterating any sense of an opening at all. The effect sealed the room as completely as a sarcophagus.
“In here,” said Jerry, and turning to my right I saw he was in a murky room leading off a small passageway. The smell of marijuana mixed with incense hit me with a blast. Jerry noticed my reaction.
“Yeah, just getting myself adjusted,” he said. “It’s been a fuck of a few weeks. Actually, it’s been a fuck of a few months, to tell the truth.” He laughed loudly. “Come on in. Come on in.”
I brushed through the passageway, lined with hundreds of records and video-cassettes, into what passed as Jerry’s sitting room. Yellow light filtered through the blinds of a single window, casting shadows on the two main pieces of furniture, a battered sofa and an electric keyboard sitting in front of it. Behind the keyboard stood a large TV with rabbit ears antennae and a clipping from a magazine stuck to them that read: “TV is Good.” The room, I realized, was actually quite high, with ten-foot ceilings at least, though the astonishing accumulation of objects in it had squeezed out this sense altogether. Every surface was covered; any space that offered room for something to be stacked or leaned or hung or draped on had been taken advantage of. Framed photographs and prints covered the walls, nudging each other in their proximity; an indeterminate number of bicycles hung suspended from the ceiling, and behind them I glimpsed, high up on the wall, a row of five Jif cleaning liquid bottles, solemnly arranged on a shelf like a Warhol installation. Behind the sofa a metal shelving rack rose to the ceiling, piled with books and an accumulation of debris that included, at first glance, a stack of baseball caps, a Stetson, several motorcycle helmets, a couple of large leather trunks, an Alien 3 video still in its shrink-wrap casing, and, perched on one of the trunks, a small black and white film still of Anthony Hopkins standing outside the Bates Motel, his face ominously cast in shadow.
“Isn’t that great?” said Jerry. “Isn’t that fucking great? I just fucking love that picture!” He put his head back and hooted with delight. “Come on in here,” he added and opened a door I hadn’t realized even existed.
The room I stepped into was smaller and, if possible, even more crowded than Jerry’s sitting room. The same eclectic decorative taste was in evidence: two fencing masks framed its small window, and a yellow plastic duck perched on a chest of drawers, staring out defiantly. In the middle of the room was a wooden swivel chair facing a mirror with a large enamel sign above it that read:
ASK FOR WILDROOT
Exhausted by the visual bombardment, I sank into the chair. The face that peered back was ill at ease, an emissary from the square world, nervous and wishing it were elsewhere.
Jerry began rummaging in his bag of scissors. “I won’t kid you, I’ve been bad,” he said, as though picking up on a strand of conversation we had simply put aside for a moment. “Real bad. I had gastroenteritis, lost thirty fucking pounds—and that’s a lot for a skinny guy like me. Then on New Year’s Eve I was committed to Methodist. I put a .38 to my head. Stupid fucking thing to do, but don’t tell me most people don’t feel like doing that at New Year. It’s amazing more people don’t kill themselves over the holidays.”
I looked up at his reflection behind me sharply, my mouth hanging open in an unformed question, but Jerry’s monologue rolled on.
“And the stupid morons didn’t even search me!” he shouted. “I had sleeping pills on me, enough to kill half the fucking hospital, and they didn’t even search me when they locked me up on suicide watch for twelve hours!” He paused for a second, his face incredulous in the mirror, and withdrew a gleaming pair of scissors from his bag.
“But you wanna know what the really dumbest thing—I mean the really dumbest thing—those cruel, ignorant, inept sons of bitches did? They gave me a plastic bag to put my clothes in! A plastic bag! I could have suffocated myself in five minutes flat.” He raised two corded, knotty arms and mimicked placing a bag over his head then jerking his body violently.
My stomach tightened and I recalled my father-in-law’s words to me when I told him I was going to Jerry’s. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he’d counseled.
“Jerry, look, if you don’t feel like cutting my hair—” I began.
Jerry stopped immediately.
“Fuck, no” he said, suddenly calm. “I’m over it now. It’s not a big deal. Don’t worry.” He began combing my hair forward firmly, dividing it into two flat partitions that hung limply over my forehead.
“You’ve got real English writer’s hair,” he noted after a pause. “Long and greasy.” He combed silently for a moment then added with something of his original brightness, “Hey, you’ll get a kick out of this. You know what I’ve done with all this? I’ve turned it into art. And it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s going to be a play. I’m going to produce, write and direct the whole thing. No one’s going to touch it, no one.” He paused for a moment, his fingers lightly examining my hair, then went on. “It’s not even about stardom anymore, you know what I mean? Screw that shit. It’s way beyond that. It’s a gift. A gift from me to the audience…” The machine-gun staccato of his delivery was back in full force again.
As Jerry talked on, and without any consultation, he began clipping away delicately at the fringes of my hair, holding each partition delicately between the first two fingers of his left hand, exactly as Lisa had done. I was surprised at how adept he was and held back for the moment the urgent comments I’d been preparing on how I wished the end result to look.
By some oblique circuitry I was unable to follow the subject matter turned to love, and Jerry began a long rant about his ex-girlfriend who had dumped him and married another man, simply because he was richer. I watched him in the mirror and noticed how his whole body partook in his story; like the trained actor he claimed once to have been, his arms, legs, and torso all helped advance the drama of his tale. Despite the sense of being railroaded, there was an undeniable pleasure in being held in thrall by such a ferocious narrative bent. Whatever else he might be, Jerry was a performer.
“The stupid thing was I loved her, and I still love her even now,” Jerry continued. “I can’t help myself. And she was so dumb. We were at a museum once looking at this statue of Shiva—you know, the God with the two pairs of arms—and she whispers to me”—here he leaned in and whispered theatrically into my ear—’Jerry, people didn’t really have more arms back then, did they?'” He straightened up suddenly and gave one of his hoots of laughter. “Oh God, I got a kick out of that, I can tell you. But you know what? Sarah was the best sex I ever had. No brain, but when I asked Mr. Penis what he thought about the whole thing he’d say, ‘Great, Jerry. Things are really great.'”
After a while I found myself relaxing, giving in to the ceaseless flow of talk behind me, interspersed with the regular click of scissors. My eyes turned to the objects in the room again and I realized that the mirror in front of me was attached to the underneath of a collapsible bed, held up by a piece of window sash tied off to one side. At the end of a day cutting hair, Jerry simply lowered the bed back down and his workspace became a bedroom once more. I admired the economy of the arrangement.
The room also doubled as his wardrobe. Behind me, hanging from the ceiling and curving half way around one wall, were hundreds of zip-up clothes bags—far more than he could ever possibly use, it seemed—each neatly labeled with a piece of tape describing their contents: “Blue men’s overcoat”; “Brown corduroy pants”; “Black leather jacket.” The writing was neat, and so was their careful arrangement. There was evidently a tidy and organized part to Jerry’s personality, that run counter to, or perhaps simply in conjunction with, his verbal wildness.
Jerry began shooting old film references at me. Had I ever seen Montgomery Clift in Red River or A Place in the Sun? How about John Wayne in From Here to Eternity? I admitted I wasn’t much of a movie buff.
“Oh man, Montgomery Clift was the best,” said Jerry. “The fucking best. He had the best haircut, too. I’m giving you that cut, but a little freer, so it falls down over your eyes like when the good guy gets punched—you know.” He mimed punching me with one hand and pulled my hair down over my forehead with the other. “You wife’s gonna love it. Real sexy.”
For an hour or so he continued cutting, talking, and periodically re-appraising his work, then said,”Okay, just one more thing.” Reaching down into his bag he pulled out a long cutthroat razor. I watched as he advanced on me with the razor in one hand and a comb in the other. Gently, he scooped up some strands of hair from the side of my head using the comb and with a quick sliding notion ran the razor back and forth along the edge of the comb; tiny flecks of hair fell like drizzle into the apron around my neck. He repeated the process on the other side, then stood back to scrutinize the affect.
“All done,” he announced, and gave me a hand mirror so I could see the back of my head. I looked transformed. Neat, tapered, stylish: it was unquestionably the best haircut I’d ever had.
“It looks great,” I said, trying to keep the surprise out of my voice.
“If you’re unhappy in the next three days, you can come back to get it trimmed again for free,” said Jerry. “That’s the Jerry guarantee. But after that you’re on your own. Don’t come back in a month’s time saying, ‘Hey, Jerry, I don’t think you cut it enough…'” He tilted his head back and hooted loudly.
For various reasons, not least fear, I didn’t go back to Jerry’s for another six months. Then, on a sweltering day in August with sweat soaking the overgrown tufts of hair at the back of my neck, I found myself on the stoop of his Brownstown again. Despite my qualms, part of me had enjoyed my first time with him. It was exhilarating to have stepped into such a different world from my own for a while, and the invigorating buzz of his verbal onslaught had stayed with me for weeks. The haircut had been much admired as well.
As I rang the bell I looked up at his building; it was funny to think of so tiny and eccentric an apartment tucked away behind such a grandly bourgeois exterior. It felt like a sleight of hand Jerry had played on the entire neighborhood somehow. There came the same gruff reply over the intercom as before, and a moment later there was Jerry again, dressed in jeans and a dress shirt and looking far more normal then when last I’d seen him. The Afro had been trimmed into a less exuberant orb, and the scratches on his face were gone. He greeted me with a smile.
“It’s the English writer again,” he said dryly. “Come on up.”
A blast of heat hit me as I entered his apartment, but Jerry quickly ushered me into his bedroom/cutting room where a small air conditioner was blowing valiantly in the window. He immediately launched into a long story about what was evidently one of his idée fixes, his doomed relationship with his old girlfriend Sarah.
“After she left me bad things just started happening,” he said, as though clarifying some issue that had been hanging over us. “I began shooting up, I started doing drugs. Everything. She just finished me. I was young then—thirty-seven—I thought my life was over and I just didn’t care.” He rummaged in his bag of scissors. “I got hepatitis, too. The only time—the only stupid fucking time—I ever shared a works with anybody. My eyes went yellow, I started pissing blood. It was bad. I had to crawl to the bathroom and place my prick on the edge of the toilet to pee—that’s how fucking weak I was…”
I began to regret having returned, but after a few minutes in this vein the topic turned to the more interesting, though equally unhappy one, of his childhood. Jerry had grown up in a blue collar Scots-Irish family in the South Side of Chicago, it turned out, one of three children—two sons and a daughter—of a police detective father. “Oh Jesus, my Dad was a bastard,” he said. “I mean, he used to beat us—no more than other dads did back in those days, but you did something wrong, he’d beat the shit out of you. He was a real man’s man. They don’t make ’em like that any more.” The steady click of his scissors behind my head ceased for a moment, as though the memory had momentarily incapacitated him.
Jerry’s father was known in the Police Department as ‘The Executioner,’ he revealed. “Every department had one and my Dad was it in Chicago. He once tossed a man off a roof to save paperwork. Fuck, yeah. Don’t look so shocked. I mean, my Dad was chasing the guy over the rooftops and the guy was firing at him—trying to kill him—and my Dad managed to get close to him and just grabbed him and that was that. Over the edge. Case fucking closed.” On another occasion, Jerry claimed, his father and his partner had shot a man dead in the back of their police car. They’d deliberately ignored the concealed weapon he had upon him during their search and then, once the man reached for it inside the car, they’d let loose, firing eleven bullets into him. Jerry’s father had fired only five of his six rounds, a regular precaution of his. “‘I never waste a full round,'” Jerry said, imitating his father’s ominous tones. Afterwards, they had smothered the dead man’s hand all over the gun to get a nice fresh print. “Case fucking closed.”
Growing up, it seemed, Jerry had shown early promise as an actor. All the agents had been after him—the golden boy with the glittering future ahead of him—but somehow everything had always turned to dust. Some of it was bad luck—a double cross by a colleague, a producer dying at a critical moment—but most was simply the result of his own demons. “I fucked up and I kept fucking up,” he said simply. “I thought I was going to be living in Malibu, I thought I’d be a Hollywood star. Instead I ended up just being a Goddam barber.” Jerry had trained as a hair stylist to support his acting career after moving to New York in the Sixties and had quickly proved good at it, working at several fancy salons and cutting the hair of such celebrities as Jackie Kennedy (JFK was about to divorce her just before he was assassinated, he confided.) For a while he had even toyed with the idea of opening his own salon, but, not surprisingly, the diplomacy required of such an endeavor had proved beyond him. Gradually, what had once been a sideline had become his full time occupation.
Jerry’s stories thrilled me, even though I still didn’t entirely believe them. I felt I was been given access to a vital well of American life that had been previously unavailable to me, despite my years in this country. This was life in the raw, above and beyond the comfortable middle-class existence of my friends and myself. It wasn’t just their content, either; it was the vigor, the white-hot linguistic fury, with which they were told. Jerry’s language was the language of a man who had lived and lost, and he hurled his words at me with all the fury of the dispossessed. I felt my own life to be lived in an infinitely more minor key by comparison.
Before I realized it my trips to Jerry’s had become a regular affair, every three or four months or so, to which I looked forward a good deal. Jerry did not ask me any personal questions about my career, such as it was, or my marriage to the woman whose hair he had cut as a little girl, or the new house we had just bought, or any of the other things expected of polite society. All this I found a relief. Jerry’s was a respite from the rules of regular life, and I felt increasingly that his monologues to me were really a gift in some way—some version of the play he claimed to have written but of which I had heard nothing since that first January afternoon.
What kept these monologues from descending into a mere self-pitying whine—his terrible father, his failure as an actor, the perfidy of his great love—was that they had broader targets, too: Jerry’s ire was cosmic in its breadth and anything and everything came under his purview. One day, when I had admired the leather Stetson that sat in his living room, he suddenly launched into a denunciation of the American male’s inability to sport a hat correctly. “Jesus Christ, American guys just don’t understand the art!” he exploded. “French guys, Italian guys—they know how to wear a hat. They wear the hat, not the other way around. The hat doesn’t fucking wear them. ‘Nice lid, dude’—I mean, that expression says it all. You gotta own the hat, you gotta be its master.” He pulled the Stetson down on his head and stared at me defiantly, strands of wild white hair sticking out on either side.
On another occasion, Jerry told me about a fight he’d had with an actress who’d told him she could play a man as well as any man could. “I just went fucking mad,” he said. “I said, ‘How the fuck dare you! How the fuck dare you? I’m fifty-one years old and I haven’t learned how to be a fucking man yet, and you stand up and say you can play a man? How fucking dare you!’ Oh man, I went off on her.”
All these outbursts were accompanied, almost like punctuation, with accounts of his latest television and movie watching habits. Just after I met him, Jerry became obsessed with Malcolm In The Middle, a new TV sitcom about a smart middle child continually at war with his family and the world. Something in it clearly clicked with him. “It’s the funniest shit I’ve seen on TV in years,” he enthused. “You gotta see it. That guy Frankie whatsisname who plays Malcolm—I mean, he just nails it. He nails it. That’s what it’s like.” Each subsequent haircut was accompanied by a breakdown of the latest episode, complete with Jerry acting out the plot both physically and verbally.
Jerry was far more than just a pop culture addict, however. As I quickly discovered, he was a man of omnivorous cultural appetites—the result, I assumed, of an autodidact’s education. His conversation was full of references to historical events, current politics, religion, books and art, thrown in not out of a desire to show off but out of a genuine interest and passion. Despite his background, despite such a father, a tenderness had found root in him, and the evidence was all around in his tiny apartment: the battered paperback copies of Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Tolstoy that I began to notice on further observation; the volumes on acting and history and philosophy; the framed film stills on the walls of Barbara Stanwyck and Marlene Dietrich from his favorite movies; the Indian prints, stained glass panels and carved Asian woodwork stacked up on window ledges and shelves. Jerry had escaped his childhood and found refuge in another world, even if his childhood occasionally reached out and led him to put a gun to his head. At least, this was the construction I chose to build around him over my increasing visits.
Jerry was also interested in my writing—not the things I actually wrote but the general process of creation—which he claimed was no different whatever art form one engaged in. He was the only person who took at face value my description of myself as a writer: I described myself as such and so I was to him. I felt he took my calling more seriously than perhaps I did myself. “The thing about writing,” he announced on one of my earlier visits, “is balance. Whatever you’re writing, it’s gotta have balance. Give ’em something hard, violence or whatever—don’t let them think you’re soft or anything, get ’em in your hands—then bam—you lay the poetic stuff on ’em. It’s all about balance. Shakespeare knew it, Faulkner knew it. The fucking Russians—they had balance to an art.”
A sign of my growing attachment to Jerry was that I became concerned about him and what I took to be his lonely, precarious existence in that tiny apartment. The apartment was rent-controlled, and Jerry paid a peppercorn sum, but as rents and real estate prices began inexorably to rise I wondered how long he would be able to hang on, especially on the meager amount he made cutting hair. Jerry himself was pretty philosophical about it. His landlord was “a Latin guy,” he said, and he had once saved his wife’s life, who lived in the building, by calling 911 after she’d had a heart attack. “Latin people don’t forget shit like that,” he said. “That’s big. That shit lasts.” Besides, Jerry was well aware of the limitations of his position. “My rent’s fucking outrageous,” he admitted. “I mean, I’m fucking raping the guy. I told him once, ‘Look, you know I’m getting away with murder here, but that’s okay. I’m not ever gonna ask you to paint. I’m not ever gonna ask you to plaster. I’m not ever gonna ask you to fix anything. I’m a guy, I don’t care about shit like that. But you and I both know I’m never leaving here either except feet first in a box.'”
Jerry’s love life seemed equally tenuous. He talked occasionally about his dates, which always seemed to end in disaster, usually brought about by his temperamental nature. For a while he went out with the ex-wife of a Mafia man (“big boobs, terrific little ass, I can’t believe she’s going out with me,”) and things seemed promising, until she made the mistake of paying for them both once too often at restaurants. Storming into the street, Jerry had berated her for “cutting off his balls” and for “emasculating” him in front of other people—for treating him, in short, “like some Goddam motherfucking gigolo.” Surprisingly, the relationship had lasted some time after that.
Jerry turned out to be highly generous, especially considering how little he had. He was an eagle-eyed collector of other people’s discarded goods as well as a habitual scourer of the local thrift shops—hence his enormous wardrobe—and he soon began pressing items on me that didn’t fit him. “The yuppies around here leave the most unbelievable shit out on the street,” was a constant refrain of his as he held up some expensive Brooks Brothers shirt or leather jacket or pair of Levis against my frame. I never sensed any form of sell, soft or otherwise, in these transactions, though I sometimes gave him a few dollars for a shirt or pair of pants; they were simply a gift of friendship, something he thought I might like. The clothes weren’t just in off-the-street condition, either, they had been carefully laundered and ironed, and in some cases dry-cleaned and patched. My wife overruled most of these acquisitions on the grounds of taste, but allowed me to keep a few things, including a pink cotton button-down dress shirt I had particularly admired which Jerry had dyed with tea to tone down the color. “An old trick,” he said. “Something you Limeys used to do.”
Jerry’s generosity was of another kind as well. Once, we went out to a bar together after he’d given me a haircut and for a while I regretted it as his eyes grew wider and wider and his conversation became crazier and crazier. He talked about Gussie, “the syndicate’s trigger man in Chicago,” who had whacked JFK, and how all the Mafia conspiracy theories were right. “No fucking doubt about it. Oliver Stone had it totally fucking right. Totally fucking right.” The story then metamorphosed into one about some “hot Latin chick” who had come onto him in a bar. I felt a flush of boredom come over me, but the story took an unusual turn. The girl revealed that she wanted to be a doctor but that her friends didn’t think she could do it. Jerry had been firm. “Listen,” he had told her. “You can wake up in seven years’ time and not be a doctor, or you can wake up in seven years’ time and be one. It’s up to you. It’s as simple as that.” Given that this was advice from a man who considered himself a rank and utter failure in life, I was suddenly and unexpectedly moved by it. Jerry was in a rage against the world, but he didn’t hate it. It was an attractive and sympathetic paradox.
One afternoon when I rang Jerry’s bell, an almost sprightly figure appeared at the door. The Afro was gone, replaced by a neat short back and sides, and there seemed an additional energy to him. He almost jogged up the stairs back into his apartment. Jerry was in love, he revealed as he pulled out his hair-cutting equipment, and it was the real deal. Her name was Maria, and he’d met her on the street just a few weeks ago. She worked in administration at a university and was only a few years younger than him. “It’s a fucking miracle, Ben. She loves me, she actually fucking loves me. When I was sick and puking my guts up for sixteen hours last week she cared for me like a baby. Mopped up and everything. I never, ever believed I could be loved like that.” Love seemed to have speeded up his whole metabolism, because he gave me the fastest haircut I’d ever had—a shade under fifty minutes—and his reviews of the latest movies he’d seen (The Matrix: Reloaded was horseshit; Anger Management was hysterical) were kept to a minimum. He was taking Maria out that night to diner, and needed to tidy up the apartment for when she came back home with him. I imagined the bed being lowered back into place with the piece of sash, the mirror and enamel sign reading BARBERSHOP ASK FOR WILDROOT hidden beneath them, the plastic duck staring down from the chest of drawers.
When next I saw Jerry I noticed a scattering of new objects that didn’t seem in keeping with his aesthetics, eclectic though they were. Two fluffy teddy bears sat nestled on one of his CD shelves; a coyly simpering doll peeped out of a tiny basket, and a picture of a kitten playing with a ball of yarn was tacked to the bedroom wall. “Yeah, it’s Maria’s shit, it’s terrible,” he said with a happy sigh. “I’m having to move a lot of my stuff out just to make room for her crap.” As I sat in his chair for what was at least the fifteenth time and stared back at my reflection I noticed something else different as well; I had changed, too, in the four years I had been going there. My hair was whiter at the temples and my stubble, which once had been gingery-brown, was now also flecked with white. A maze of lines fanned out from the corner of my eyes, giving me an unintentionally disapproving appearance. The look was disconcertingly familiar, and then I realized: it was my father’s face I was looking at. I felt a strange wave of guilt at the perception. Jerry gave one of his hoots when I told him. “You can’t escape your genes, bro,” he said. “Hey, I’ve even started to stink like my old man. The other day I got this whiff and I thought, ‘Jeez, that’s awful familiar,’ and then it dawned on me: I’ve got the same funk the old man had!” We both laughed at the inevitability of Nature.
The time after that I saw him was in November 2001, and everything in New York City’s old world order had changed. I now lived in what had become terrorism’s number one target, and my grand hopes of literary achievement seemed absurd and selfish in contrast to the magnitude of what had just occurred. Arriving at Jerry’s was a relief: with the exception of more of Maria’s “crap”, which I took as a good sign, nothing had changed at all. It was still dark and jam-packed with the bulwark of objects he had heaped against his past, and it still smelled of marijuana. Everything exuded the cool, unperturbed air of a museum. Only Jerry himself looked slightly different, sporting a hideous Zapata mustache that made him seem, as he admitted, “like a cop or some Village leather queen.” He’d only grown it for fun, he said, and was about to shave it off because Maria hated it. On the subject of the attacks he was horrified yet adamant: “Oh, we had it fucking coming. We had it fucking coming. Sooner or later someone was gonna give us our fucking head on a plate.” What scared him most was the government’s offer to help purchase new air conditioners and furnishings for those living downtown. “You know when the fucking government is offering to clean your apartment you’re in deep shit,” he said. “I feel so sorry for those poor bastards.” Though he spoke with neither relish nor indifference about the disaster that had happened to the city, living with his own personal disasters for so long, I felt, made him view all events with a certain fatalism. His reaction was neither that of the gung-ho patriotism I had witnessed in the streets recently, with crowds of people chanting “USA! USA!”, not was it the equally prevalent hand-wringing of the intellectual elite. It was both compassionate and cold-eyed. It was very Jerryish.
Then, with a quickness that was perhaps necessary but still made us all feel a little ashamed, life returned to normal again. The shock continued to resonate below the surface, but the personal and the commonplace resumed their paramount position. Jerry became obsessed with new TV shows (Scrubs; Will & Grace; Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and I started work on my first book and a few small pieces that began appearing in print. Eighteen months after 9/11, just shy of my fortieth birthday, my personal life underwent a tumultuous change when my wife gave birth to our first child, Jack. Rather tentatively I bought Jerry a picture of him when next I came for an appointment. I hadn’t expected much of a reaction, but Jerry seemed delighted, almost tender, with my gift. He stuck the photo, a little black and white wallet-sized print, next to his TV, where Jack’s calm gaze stared out at me amid the clutter each time I returned. “You’re part of the world now, bro,” Jerry said to me. “No getting away from it.”
Jerry, too, seemed more a part of the world, in large part thanks to Maria, I thought. His conversations, though pitched several degrees above the average person’s intensity, seemed less frantic, less filled with free-form invective, and the pot-smoking had also declined slightly. Maria was driving him crazy, he said, and this too I took as a good sign. The honeymoon period was over and they were into the long stretch. One summer afternoon as I was leaving, Jerry pointed out a wooden toy suspended from the ceiling by a thick rubber band. It was a gift from Maria, he said, a pot-bellied, beret-sporting caricature of a Frenchman in a striped tee-shirt with wings attached to his outstretched arms. Jerry pulled the figure down and let go and it sprang back up, the man’s arms clumsily yet energetically flapping around in a circle. “If that fat fucking Frenchman can fly,” Jerry said, “then maybe I can myself.”
A few more years passed and my wife and I had another child, a baby girl, Sadie, though curiously enough I did not offer Jerry a picture of her. My book came out and my rate of publication began to increase slowly. I still looked forward to my visits to Jerry, and still treasured the bizarre intimacy his belligerent tirades fostered. My sense of being an interloper in his space, while never fading entirely, had subsided to a large degree. More importantly, the face that stared back at me in the mirror below the WILDROOT sign was mine now, and acceptably so. I no longer saw its features as awkwardly unformed, unmarked by experience, or worse, some gross appropriation of my father’s. They belonged to me and I had earned them, and I felt Jerry was, at least in some part, responsible for that. Jerry seemed more comfortable, too. Things were still good with Maria, he informed me, and she had recently thrown him a surprise birthday party in a restaurant in Bay Ridge. “I’m so fucking stupid,” he said. “I didn’t get it. I walked into this restaurant and there was this friend I knew and I said, ‘Hi.’ Then I saw another friend and thought, ‘Funny, he’s here, too.’ Then I saw another one and I thought, ‘Wow, what a fucking coincidence.’ Poor Maria, she thought I was unhappy. She didn’t realize what a dumb fuck she’s with.” He plucked a pair of scissors out of his bag and gave one of his trademark hoots.
The most recent time I saw Jerry, on an unseasonably warm afternoon in mid March a few months ago, he followed me downstairs after my haircut and walked a few blocks towards the subway station with me. His eyes constantly prowled the garbage cans along the sidewalk, looking for goods the yuppies might have thrown out, and once or twice he darted forward to inspect some article left on the curb. He was in a philosophical mood. “You know, you get wisdom three ways,” he mused. “By meditation; by drugs; and by just getting fucking old. I’ve been thinking about myself now I’m sixty-two and how I’ve turned out the way I have, with my Dad and everything, and it’s really amazing I didn’t become a fucking criminal.” He paused for a moment. “I don’t think I’ve done so bad in the end, all things considered.” We walked side by side for a few minutes, two men in companionable silence, and then we shook hands on the corner and Jerry turned round and headed back up the street to his tiny apartment.