Slackjaw: Life in Black & White

Written by Jim Knipfel on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


It was the roughest hangover to take hold in quite a while. Morgan and I had been at the bar for our share the night before, and after stumbling home I made the mistake of not eating anything. My own stupid fault. On the way into work the next morning I was still a little drunk. For a while I was anyway, then it sort of melted into my head and stomach and limbs.

Around 11 a.m., still having some trouble focusing my eyes, I walked down to the deli to get a sandwich. It was a holiday for a lot of people in town. Not me though, and not the guys in the deli. Which was mostly empty. I walked carefully back to the sandwich counter, trying to hold my head in such a way that it didn’t hurt. Here’s the guy, one of the kids behind the counter said. He’d stopped me a few times over the years to ask some general questions about life and the like. He was a good kid, one of the youngest there. He was enthusiastic.

You know, he said from behind the glass and steel counter, detectives used to wear hats like that.

Hmm? I asked. I just wasn’t all there.

Detectives, he repeated. They used to wear hats like that.

Yes, they did, I said, trying to be polite through the haze.

And gentlemen, too. In the old days.

Back in the ’30s and ’40s, I said, everyone wore a hat like this. All the time. You couldn’t be caught without one. They’d beat you.

You ever watch that Channel 13? he asked.

Sure, yeah.

Sometimes I watch that, and they show this old footage and everyone’s wearing hats like that. Dressed real nice. I like to see that.

Uh huh.

Those were different times, man.

They sure were.

People were polite, they watched out for each other…they were happy, you know? Things weren’t always good, but they were happy. They got through.

Yeah, I think I would’ve liked it then, I said. Me too, he said. It surprised me, what with the ways and means of most kids today with their gadgets and Internet and crass ignorance. But this kid smiled a nearly wistful smile, and gave me my sandwich. In the end, I think he just wanted my hat. By the next morning, I felt much better. I knew I would. Outside the air was foggy and heavy. Warmer than I liked it, and just damp enough to leave my skin clammy. I passed a man walking an angry dachshund named Martin. Martin wasn’t liking much of anything that morning.

A few minutes later in the grocery store, I stood in the dairy aisle, scrutinizing the sell-by date on a carton of milk. Suddenly I was slammed from the right, nearly dropping the carton and losing my footing. The hulking old man who’d just body checked mehe had to’ve been in his seventies, but was clearly in much better shape than I’d ever beenbent down where I’d been standing and began pawing through the cartons. Milk cartons toppled to the left and right beneath his thick, groping hands. He was wearing a green jacket, had a full head of hair and stood over six feet tall. Ya gotta get the ones in the back, he muttered as he pawed. That’s where they put the new ones.

I I stood there in some confusion, still feebly gripping the carton I’d been trying to read. He stood, holding another carton and looking at the date.  Two percent, he announced. That’s a good one. Show me that one you got. 

I did. Yeah, this one’s better. Here you go. He handed me the new one. Then he took the one I’d been holding and tossed it onto the dairy carnage he’d just created. Thank you, I said, still confounded by the whole thing. Ya gotta be nice to your neighbors. That’s what I think. Help ‘em out, right?

Thank you, I repeated. Like that cat. They got him out last night. He was referring to a drama that had dominated the news in recent days concerning a cat trapped inside the walls of a store on Hudson Street. I’d just heard the happy conclusion that morning. I just heard, I said. He went 14 days without food.

Yeah, wellhe’s eating now. I wasn’t sure where to go after that, so I thanked him a third time for the milk and ducked quickly around the corner to the next aisle, hoping I wouldn’t run into him again.

He of course was right about being decent to one’s neighbors. Most people aren’t, and I can’t say I always am. Given his age, I’m guessing he was one of those guys in the ’40s the kid at the deli had been talking about. Well, ’50s, anyway. Personally, I think the line on decency and kindness should probably be drawn when it involves body blows and wreaking havoc on the dairy casebut as the kid had said, things were different back then.

I brought the milk and the few other groceries I’d grabbed up to the checkout. The woman at the register rang everything up, but stopped with the milk. She looked at it closely, and then dragged the bottom along the belt. This one’s no good, she told me. It’s leaking everywhere, see? You better go get yourself another.

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