Gypsies

People used to call my Pops a geep when he got old, which was, in a way, accurate. He used to wear the black socks all around the house. I don’t know where the term comes from: something with guinea, maybe the G-P of grandpa. I used to tell him when he just had the ripped white tee on, Pops, get the hell back in the house before someone respectable sees you. Anyway, it’s something I’ve been thinking about now that I’m around that age. My wife Lola tells me karma’s bitchy. My back isn’t too good. Sometimes I dribble in my pants after I pee. But I’ll tell you one thing, I’m always wearing white socks when people are watching.

My Pops was Italian, but Ma was a Jew, so that makes me a little different background than him. I’ve got a finely sculpted figure, like I used to, just someone recently put a little too much of the extra marble on my belly. I’ve still got the moustache, and the goatee, black, that Pops used to make me shave off, back when he told me I had a little of the Hasid in me, that I looked like a little dwarf when my hair balded at sixteen.

Pops was a showman, circus fella, when he got back to New York from the army. I’ve still got the first carousel he used to truck around to all the events. Back then there was big money in it, and he was a respectable man. The borough presidents used to call him up every spring to figure out when he’d bring the show to their big parks for the summer. That’s how I grew up: in a big house on Gerritsen Avenue. We were like the first settlers there, practically, like pioneering days, and we got a house that was as big as half a block. In the backyard was where we’d keep the carousels, the inflatable mazes, the bouncey-bounce, and the little baby roller coaster that took five hours to put together.

It wasn’t all great. People used to call us gypsies behind our backs and ask where the donkeys were. Of course in Kennedy’s America the smalltime carnivals didn’t have animals anymore. If we were a gypsy show we were gasoline-fueled and blow-up, going around in the back of a Chevy: rides, food, music that was strange to the American ear. But probably gypsy is what we would’ve been if we’d still been in one of my parents’ old countries. Then again, if we were in Poland, we’d probably be dead: cause I’ve got a long nose, and nobody likes gypsies even if that’s not really what we are.

Pops liked to tell us stories about his tour. He’d never been to Italy before it, though grandpops was born there. The army gave him a way to see the world, and he appreciated them for that. His war experience had been as good as you could possibly get, I’d bet: he was a truck mechanic in the sunflower fields outside San Gimignano. Pops used to tell us that everywhere, the air smelled like raisins. And when one of the military vans went by, the new ones with diesel engines, the sunflowers turned their faces to follow, and no one could tell if it was the wind from them passing or some weird magnetic force.

Pops had a favorite story, his defining experience, which went something like this: one day, he had leave, just for the second half of the afternoon. He and a buddy took bicycles that they’d stolen from the houses of civilians, and biked up the path towards town. It was a bustling and busy place then, because it was walled, and everybody who was anybody, civilians, in that area of Italy, was inside. They said that the place had withstood every battle since the Venetians dug a hole underneath during the Papal Wars.

Anyway, they weren’t supposed to be there, it was military policy to stay out of town, too many locals were getting screwed. So they go through the gates with local clothes on, no uniforms, and up this crooked alley. They make it to Via Berignano which goes through the whole village and they take that, left, looking for the restaurant that’s supposed to serve wine and hashish even if they know you’re a soldier. But they keep walking and don’t see the place until they get all the way to the city walls. They were crumbling like cookies between a pair of legs, Pops used to say.

There was a grove of peach trees and Pops stopped, peered behind them. There was a big wagon with a cow licking the green moss off the walls. The wagon was all wood and covered and painted in big garish colors. Show of the Universe, it said in purple script. There was smoke coming from a little canvas chimney towards the back—and the last thing Pops saw before the carabinieri came out of nowhere and hustled him and his buddy away with their arms on their asses was the woman lying on her back. She was underneath the wagon, next to the ruts that the wheels made, and she was completely naked, with her hands behind her head and humming something mountainous into the air that was stinking of peaches. 

 

I’m not an anything person. I’m not that cheap and I don’t spend too much, sometimes I like to be outside while at the same time I’d rather just sit on the couch. I used to like country but I listen to rock and roll too. There’s things that I like half of when I should like the whole: women, babies, Oreo cookies. This is how I feel about my marriage sometimes.

I married a black woman, ok?  Sure, Pops didn’t love it. But he didn’t love a lot of things, and in a way he was a filthy racist, which is a whole thing, not half. Her name’s Lola, and I met her at a job in Prospect Park. Once she told me that where she came from, wasn’t no one who didn’t like a little carnival.

Lola I like. We’ve got the house now, on Gerritsen. It’s the only big one left, everything else is rented. We’re this big decrepit place now with leaves stuck in the drainage and everything around us, one floor, is a condominium. I hear their babies squalling through the little walls, and their mothers getting fucked in the bedrooms. Lola likes to leave the music on and pretend the whole thing’s an opera.

I guess we had a kid late. There had been a while when we didn’t think it would work, though it wasn’t for not trying. Really it was like twenty years, which could have been time enough for a whole nother four kids. But we ended up with just the one, Tony. I love him to death.

Right now he’s at school, second grade, which really is a great age but I can’t help wishing that he were a year out of high school, because then he could’ve taken the family business from me and I wouldn’t have to sell the show. I’m getting tired of doing it, I’m a little too old, and it’s just not the same: carnival rides aren’t too popular anymore. We’ll do a summer-opening fair or something, but that’s about it for the major bookers. There’s always a couple of calls for July 4th. But the rest of the summer is pretty empty and you can forget about the winter, I just sit around and oil the machinery while the TV blares from the bedroom and Lola yells out the window, let the goddamn things rust.

It’s something I can’t really do. I remember Ma was really helpful with Pops when we were in season, and even outside it. She used to run the concession stands, sometimes hiring local kids to walk around with white hats and boxes of peanuts. Once, I remember, she had to fill in for Madame Starbright, the fortunetelling lady—and this was the most beautiful moment, her wrapped in blue robes with the sprinkles falling from the ceiling of the wood shack we did the readings in—and I think even Pops was surprised, that maybe Ma was something else entirely that he never gave her credit for.

I’m not saying Pops was perfect. That’s clear: he was a jerk sometimes and especially to Ma. You got the feeling that he thought he could’ve done better in life, coming back from Italy with the G.I. Bill, but somehow things didn’t work out, just a roll of the dice. Somehow he became Brooklyn’s Preeminent Showman. But because he did, he lorded it over Ma and me like he was coming from some other sort of place where things looked much better.

When he died a couple months ago I thought he was going to say something like, Sonny, make sure the show goes on, but instead he said, “Come here.”  I dropped my ear real close. He said hoarsely, “I think, Sonny, that I left some broccoli in the refrigerator.”  Ma had been gone for a while then and I guess he was looking out for my vitamin health. But that was the first time that I thought maybe I could actually sell the thing, get out of the business, retire. I saw a couple of ads the other day in the Skyline for delivery drivers, trucking stuff around to where people bring it into places on those metal pushcarts. I thought I’d look really good in one of those company polos that those guys always wear and maybe, because of my advanced age, they’d let me work part-time and have the rest off to ice my bones. That’d be nice, especially this being the end. Once I saw a stoner on the street with a cap and a sign on cardboard, The End, and I said to him, what, is this the movies? 

Here’s something. I never went to college. Lola was done with high school by the time I got my GED, and at that point I thought, forget it, I make 10 large a go oiling the roller-coaster for Pops. Lola said I should’ve, that it’d come back to bite me in the end, but then there’s another thing I should’ve listened to Lola for, and I was wrong, I’ll admit it.

One thing I always liked about working the carnival when I was little was that Pops used to let me hand out popcorn, and when I was really little I’d give it to all the pretty ladies in high heels. Then when I got a little older my friends used to come and hang out and eat snacks by the generator. We were big into the blow-up obstacle course in those days, that Pops made us take our shoes off for. It was all made of canvas and air, and there was a climbing section and a sliding part and one place where you had to push punching bag things away. There was the year when someone tripped in the middle and punched a hole through the floor. I still remember the hiss while the whole thing sank down and collapsed. There were times we did it as races, two at a time until we’d all gone twice, and then the two fastest raced with everyone else screaming at them from the sides, hanging off the hand-holds and throwing popcorn at each other. Last year during a block party in Rockaway, when we were about to wrap up, I saw two kids sitting in the middle where it’s painted blue like a water trap, just talking. They were playing video games on their hand-helds. I told them they could have one more go through but then we had to close up and they said it was ok. They just left. I don’t know what to think about that.

Once a little girl asked me on the subway what I did for a living, because I was carrying a plastic bag full of balloons over my shoulder that kept trying to float above my head. I told her about the travelling carnival thing or whatever and she said, is that sort of like Santa Claus?  I said first of all we work in the summer. And it’s not like we do presents and it’s not like it’s for free. She nodded really intelligent and said she hoped I’d come visit her neighborhood sometime, she lived in Bay Ridge. This was the R train which always takes forever and she must have been on a school trip, or something. She got off with lots of other little kids and a lady who kept holding the door. She kept looking at the bag and then back at me and then at the bag until finally I gave her a balloon and she got real excited.

Yesterday I was on the train because I dropped the pickup off at Flatbush, to change the breaks, and I’m standing with one hand on the rail when this guy goes, here you go grandfather, it’s your seat. First I was like who talks like that on Newkirk Avenue?  Then I got a look at myself in the window and I said, God, I really am a geep. My goatee’s getting real fuzzy and there’s hair coming out my ears. And here I am sitting with a t-shirt tucked into my shorts.

 

The way it happened was the guy wrote me a check. He had a truck and his cousins had two more and yesterday they just took it all in that. It was 200 grand, which was more than the show would make in the next 15 years, Lola said. She’s right. We all sat down at the kitchen counter and I gave them coffee and introduced them to Tony, before he ran upstairs or something. They didn’t have any of the cake Lola made, which I thought was rude, until she said Jesus, not everyone’s half Italian.

When they left I went into the backyard to straighten the rest of it up. Lola’s in the kitchen making jerk chicken, or something. I almost knock over the plants in front of the screen door where we’ve been trying to grow pot, Lola’s little side business. A story about Lola: once she told me that when she was fourteen, before she came here, she was driving a jeep in Jamaica, up and down the mountain roads. These things were all dirt, she said, and one lane, so that if there were two cars coming at each other, one had to back up and find a little place in the rock to turn into. Lola was never a great driver but this happened to her once, and she was at a point on the hill where there weren’t any niches to turn into for a while, and so she drove down the whole thing backwards, yelling. When she got to the bottom, where the beach was, she got out of the car and grabbed a seashell and threw it at the windshield. It didn’t even make a crack. I’m never driving again, she said. And she didn’t. But she took the shards of the shell and took them with her, and put them back together with crazy glue, and now it’s up above the sink in the kitchen where she washes the fruit.

Our last gig was a week or so before, between Avenue M and N, on one of those streets that curves. Hasid neighborhood, who don’t party much, but some liberal Jews too who eat up this sort of thing. They rented the whole street and closed it down, so we had room for the rollercoaster and even the extra large maze that we hadn’t taken out in a couple years. I ran the barbecue for most of it while Tony ran to and from the truck getting hot-dog packets. He didn’t mind doing it and other little things as long as he got an allowance every Monday.    

Because it was our last one, Lola decided to make it something special. She took out the Madame Starbright costume and did that for a few hours. She was really good too. I listened in a bit from behind the tent. “The Wheel,” she said, “Sagittarius. You resemble the Jilted Man appearing in the pocket of Jupiter.”

The night before, she’d been practicing. Tony was asleep after eating half a chocolate cake. I was just licking the rest off the spatula when she came in from the dining room, where she’d been looking at tarot cards. The way she did it was she came up from behind and spread her hand in the center of my chest.

“Want to hear your fortune?” Lola said. I told her not to be stupid, that she better get back to studying.

“I think I’ve really got it, Sonny,” she said. I kept doing the dishes but she tapped twice on my chest with her hand. “Please,” she said.

I know I turned the faucet off but it was drip-dripping while we went outside. The patio sliding door used to hum when you opened it, but it’s a little broken now so it just squeaks and starts. It was around that time in the summer when it felt like Halloween at nighttime. Next door the baby was crying and the TV going on. We sat down at the little table, next to the vines that went from the ground to over our heads.

She was across from me and she picked up my hand in both of hers and said, “Remind me to get charcoal for tomorrow.” 

“We doing this or what,” I said.

She shook my hand up and down and kissed it on the knuckles. Then she closed her eyes and hummed. I thought she was going to say something any second but she didn’t, so I looked around a little bit, got distracted. I’d promised to paint a free throw line for Tony fifteen feet from the hoop.

When I looked back she’d stopped humming, but I hadn’t even known. Her eyes were wide open and her hands were tight around mine.

“Litigus, Dionysiac, Mesopatam,” she said. “I see that the Chariot is aligned with the Prince of Satyrs.”  I grinned. She started to laugh too. She put my fingers over her eyes and looked through them. I mussed up her eyebrows and looked over her shoulder to where some of the equipment was covered by a tarp. There was a little bit of standing water in the middle from the thunderstorm last night.

“When I was sixteen,” I told her, “I used to come out here and make sure the stuff wasn’t getting wet, if it was raining, the night before a job.”

She put her fingers back on the table.

“You’re going to be ok,” she said.

 

When I get to the first delivery place from the ad they tell me they’ve diversified their interests. Actually their owner had gotten himself into real estate. I go to the second but they’re closed for the day. The third is the Herr’s outlet on Quentin Avenue and I find a spot and go inside.

It really is a warehouse: no front door but just an open garage. It’s like a hangar inside, but just filled with rows and rows of bags of chips. There’s a cashier’s desk at the front where it looks like they sell single bags and things like that, and the guy sitting there gets up when I come in and says, “Can we help you?”

I say you can, because it’s obvious that he’s the only one here. He’s got on dress clothes and black socks that are wrapped up around his dress pants, so that it’s like he’s wearing tights below the knees.

“I’m looking for work,” I say.

“Are you a veteran?”

“Do I look like one?”

“Merchandising?”

“No, delivery.”

He looks at me for a second as if to tell me that I’m too old, but then he says one moment please and goes in the back. The guy’s as old as I am. I can hear him making a call. The row of chip bags behind the desk is called Worcestershire Steak Sauce, Special Edition.

He comes back and tells me they’ll try me out for a run, do I have a commercial driver’s license?  I do. Can you sign this paperwork?  I do the pen. He tells me that the truck is parked out on 34th, it’s already loaded and I just have to make the stops on the sheet. Crown Heights, Flushing Park, a hub outlet on 248th in the Bronx. He brings out a map but I tell him I know how to get there. I figure I’ll do the Bronx first, then circle back. Then, while he’s checking over the paperwork and filing it in a folder, he asks me, “So what type of work have you been in?”

“Entertainment,” I say.

“Are you an actor?”

“Used to have a little travelling carnival, we did kids’ birthdays and block parties and things.”

“Maybe I’ve heard of it?  What was the name?”

“Show of the Universe,” I said.

He straightened the papers. “Well this must be a let-down then,” then he looks at me and grins to let me know he’s kidding.

“We’ll see,” I say. He raps the desk with his knuckles. He asks me did I want anything else besides the keys?  I give him an A-OK but don’t even answer, just grab the key-ring and walk my way out.

 

It was one of those days when it’s like the middle of the night on the street, no cars or traffic or anything. Then Ocean Avenue, down from Coney Island. I take Ocean Parkway to the Prospect Expressway, and I’m just flying, me and this truck. This must be what it’s like to drive a Hummer, I think. As if you could roll over the Toyotas in front of you, trunks crushing and bags of chips flying everywhere.

Pops used to say, there are five easy steps to living: The Mariner’s Inn has dollar beers on Thursdays, and I forget the other four. I’m passing Prospect Park, where there’s kids playing baseball and things. I don’t know what Tony’s gonna tell his friends that I do for a living anymore, because he used to say I was a magician, because I’d shown him some tricks with pulling a coin out from behind an ear. All I’m saying is, with the way driving this big baby feels, I want to go in for show-and-tell day, or career day, if they still have those.

I’m on the highway next to the East River, watching Manhattan get more wild as we go North. It’s true: there’s more trees up here by the water, and that big tower that’s supposed to be part of Columbia way up in the 100’s, that looks like a lighthouse, but made of stone. I’m passing Yankee Stadium and I’m changing lanes, going around the 18-wheelers and the little cars too. It’s like the first time I drove on the highway by myself, how it was just like dancing: sort of like when I was little and we’d be cleaning up after a job and everything would be packed, and it’d just be Pops and Ma, but the music still going. They’d put it on to something corny like Frank Sinatra, and sometimes Pops would hug her and go side to side. I had this little move, a sort of jump-in-the-air-split kind of thing that they asked me to do over and over and over. I showed it to Lola once as a joke and she patted my cheek and said, white people.

I double park outside the hub on 248th and some guys come scrambling out to unload. They nod, say, hey, you made good time. One of them claps me on the shoulder before he starts loading the handcart. They won’t let me do anything so I take a bag of Worcestershire and sit on the curb. They tell me it’ll be about half an hour, take a walk, go check out the Stella Dora factory a few blocks away.

I start walking and eating my bag of chips and it’s like when you don’t even realize how far you went because you’re licking your fingers for the crumbs and the salt on the bottom. I’m on Broadway where the 1 train ends and Van Cortlandt Park spreads out in front of me. It’s the badlands up here, no one coming except for track races and the immigrant soccer games. Places where just the crack addicts go at night to use the bathroom.

I walk across the soccer field and into the trees where it’s just a forest part. There’s a pond here where I always wanted to do a gig, set the roller coaster coming down the hill, let kids throw water balloons into the water. Only problem is the shit trees that have these blossoms that smell terrible. There’s a cave here, a waterfall too—it’s so far out in the Bronx that tourists never heard of it, and the locals have other things going on. I sit there for a while until I realize I have to go get the truck back. I take a piss on a tree because I’d been holding it in. When I get back to the outlet some respectable guy in a company polo opens the driver’s door for me, and then he closes the back with a bang and I start driving again.