Jimmy

October 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

Back in 1993, I moved from Pittsburgh to New York City. I had been in Pittsburgh for eight years, and the walls were closing in. I am a Sagittarius which, I am told, makes me open to travel and adventure. I was. I left all of my friends, my job, and my familiar life to live among strangers in one of the biggest cities on earth.

It was for me. Even my rocky arrival and difficulty settling in didn’t dampen my feeling for the city. I liked how you could get lost. Coming from a small town where gossip and backbiting had robbed me of happiness in my childhood, I loved being able to escape every familiar face.

In New York, you can walk for hours and not even feel it. There is so much to stimulate that you walk with ease, eating the city with your feet, your eyes, your senses. Street corners can smell like bread, spices, urine, flowers: it is all there for a hand to touch.

My adjustment was a struggle. I had to reinvent my plan for one after thinking it was a plan for two. I got very sad, drifted alone into the city, and ended up at Tompkins’ Square Park.

The friendships I made there changed the color of my life. I sat on a bench in a big bricked oval, watching a medley of people play soccer. They would take breaks to smoke, drink and chat. I made friends.

Around the corner, drummers were drumming. The sound of Yoruba rhythms shaped the space. I rose, rounded the corner and entered another world. A woman sat on the bench, grooving, reverberating, to the beat of half a dozen congas. Consuming beats merged to the periodic singing of the drummers.

Green was greener. The air was pulsing around me and the circle opened to include. A young woman danced, welcomed me in with almost demure flirting; and soon, I had a whole new group of friends.

Cenén, the woman on the bench, was a poet like me. The young woman dancing was, as well. Through them, I met a whole cast of characters and dipped into a well of culture and experience from which I had never drank. It was awesome.

One of the people I met during that time was Jimmy. Jimmy was a professional dog walker. He was also addicted to alcohol and heroin. Nonetheless, our conversations shaped me; and kept me from the brink. His humor warmed my life. He gave me compassion, communion and deep companionship.

Summer afternoons are heaven at that park. The energy is buoyant, and the company abounds. The soccer players were kicking a ball around while I talked to my friend, Ernst, who was taking a break from soccer. Ernst’s broad face was spread with a smile. Shiny on top, his head was rung with dreadlocks around its circumference. Ernst had come to New York from Haiti to work. I took every opportunity I could to share his space. Patient, with a casual laugh, he was medicine.

As we talked, a familiar voice cut the air. From the huge bent branch of a 70-foot tree we saw Jimmy dangling. He called out to us from above, and recited a poem. It was genuine and angry, comical and brief. He was drunk; and up very high. I wanted to pluck him down like an adoring mother; and hug the ache away.

It was late winter, and the weather was expecting to turn for the worse. Jimmy had invited me to a party at some ultra-hip, redesigned, lower east side loft. The food was good, the drinks were free and we stayed too long. The soft static of the blizzard hypnotized us through the enormous windows while the atmosphere and music said, “dance.”

By the time we left, there were easily four inches of snow on the ground, if not more. The wind tried to force us back to the party as Jimmy tried to walk me home. Shouting at each other through the storm, we decided Jimmy’s house, only three blocks away, would be the place to stop.

Jimmy’s house was unconventional. Judy, the dancer, and I often joked that Jimmy had a house and an apartment. In fact, Jimmy had a squat and a well built shanty in an abandoned lot. It was to the shanty we were going, that night. Honestly, I couldn’t wait to see Jimmy’s house. I’d never been there before.

Pressed tight together, we cut through the blizzard down Avenue C. In a few blocks, we came to an enormous corner lot, fenced in with 8-foot-high chain link topped with razor wire. Around the corner, we slipped through it and into the lot.

Past the fence, the path descended into overgrowth that loomed above. At our feet lay a path made of stones, intricately woven through the brush. In secrecy, we approached the center of the lot.

Jimmy’s house was probably just a little bigger than this one. Built of discarded materials, it stood solidly in the gust of the storm. Jimmy grasped the edge of a sheet of plywood and thrust it aside. He gestured me through the door.

Half of the space was sectioned off for storage; the other half, his living quarters. A mattress sat on a carpeted floor next to a small space heater. A long power cord supplied electricity from a neighboring building. Jimmy turned on the heat.

Sitting on the heater were several cans of Ravioli. After talking a while, we’d eat that warm pasta in the comfort of his tiny house. Built by his own hands, Jimmy had made an incredibly solid, cozy, secure home int he middle of an abandoned lot. We sat out the storm in the comfort of each other’s company, nestled down in a plywood shack.

When morning came, we went out into the snow. It was double the night before, soaking up every trace of sound. We left the little house behind us, leaving our evidence on the snow.

Almost 20-years-ago: it doesn’t seem possible. I can’t find Jimmy. I don’t know his last name. I think about him in this tiny house, the solid walls holding out the rain and the cold. I close my eyes and feel the rushes of blizzard snow hit, deflect and leave us in peace. Leave me in peace.

The other night, I ate a cold can of Ravioli. I could have heated it; but I was lazy. Still, I thought of Jimmy. Ravioli in hand, in front of the space heater, I offered up a gentle pray. “Peace for Jimmy.”

I’m thinking of you Jimmy, wherever you are.