Monday, October 22, 2012
I’m sitting outside a coffee shop in the East Village with a pack of cigarettes on the table.
“Mind if I sit down?” a guy asks. He has one of those great New York accents.
“Donald” he tells me as he lights a cigarette and extends his hand- we shake.
“We are a dieing breed.” He says, motioning to his cigarette. I laugh even though I’ve heard and said that line a thousand times. It’s how smokers begin a conversation- it oils up the talk.
A fire truck goes by and all the firemen call out to Donald and wave. He smiles and waves back.
He asks where I’m from.
“Good people in the Midwest” He says when I tell him. “Pretty part of the country too.”
I agree- it’s funny how you don’t notice those things until after you leave.
“I’m about to make a terrible mistake- in about 15 minutes” he says- dragging deeply on the cigarette.
I don’t press it, he doesn’t offer.
He’s a retired firefighter who broke his back in during 9/11. He was hospitalized and forced into retirement. He had been off heroin for many years before that but with the pain medication he slipped back into using. He’s been clean now for 3 years.
The bad decision he is about to make is that the corner we are sitting on is the same corner his dealer works.
“Funny, I woke up today, walked around and found myself here, on this corner." He said smiling. "I found myself here, after taking two trains and walking 10 blocks” I just found myself here.
I told him a bit of my own past demons.
"Good people in the Midwest." He says again. "I mean there are assholes everywhere but there seem to be fewer there.”
“I’m wondering if this move to New York was a bad idea.” I say in response.
“It’s not”, he replies but doesn’t tell me why it’s not a bad idea, some information I could use right about now.
“Want to know how we would find the bodies of firemen in the towers? The smell of the burned equipment. Civilians we couldn’t find, there was nothing left of them. But the firemen in the protective gear, it’s a smell you never forget. They turned to jelly in those suits”
There isn’t anything I can say to that. So I stay quiet.
“I started taking meds for the rods in my back and the dreams- next thing you know I’m shooting up and ended up in the vaults." He explained, "The key to the vaults is you got to crush an orange around your nose and mouth to mask the smell. The vaults*.” He motions over his shoulder, beyond Thompkins Square Park. (I may have mis-heard the word "Vault" I looked it up and could't find any reference to it)
I’m looking toward the corner to see if I can see anyone that resembles a drug dealer. I don't even know how to respond because I can't even imagine how it feels to live through that. I do understand the 'urges' so I talk about what I understand.
“The beauty of having three years off heroin is that you won’t get dope sick if you don’t use today. You can always use tomorrow- it’s too pretty of a day to throw three years out the window. Tomorrows supposed to be shitty- I’d wait until tomorrow.”
He laughs “Yea, tomorrow, maybe tomorrow. Tomorrow's always a good time to start back up”
I like Donald- he’s a nice guy.
He smiles, “I know I’m not going to shoot up today. I knew the moment I told you I was going to”
I understand the notion of "telling on yourself" but I have to ask. “Wonder why you decided to tell me. What made you sit down next to me and tell me?”
“Guys like us can spot each other a mile away.” He says. "I'm going home to see my wife."
We shake hands and he walks toward the subway, away from the corner. I wish I had gotten his number so I could check in on him but maybe we were just supposed to meet over a cup of coffee and a cigarette on a pretty autumn day.