The End of Innocence
February 29, 2020
Every morning when I wake up, I check my phone to see if there is a text or call from Emily. It has been almost 10 years since we broke up, but I can’t stop myself. We had made a pact when we were dating to text a special code: “Red Alert!” The deal was that if either one of us got this code, we would drop whatever we were doing and meet at a table in the café in Bryant Park. It only was used twice – once when my Dad died – I texted the code, and she was waiting for me at our designated table as I walked up the path.
My friend Jimmy Murphy always asks why I don’t just text the code myself, but I couldn’t do that any time in the past 10 years. I know that I need her, but I have to know that she needs me. I close my eyes and think of her in that black bikini on the beach in Positano, her long strawberry blonde hair flowing in the breeze. That idealized image is how I want to remember her, and not the last time I saw her when she stormed angrily out my door.
This morning is no different as I wake in a foggy haze. I reach for the phone on my night table, and I look at it. Nothing! I put my head back on the pillow, stare at the crack in the ceiling above my bed, and listen to the stillness of the room. How did I get to this point in my life?
In the grand scheme of things, my life has been quiet since the loss of my father over 10 years ago now. I quit a high-paying job a few months after his death, and my subsequent and inevitable breakup with Emily followed that move. Since then I have been working from home as a proofreader and editor. I joined an online company that connects me with clients, and I make a decent amount of money depending on the jobs available and how hard I push myself.
After I drag myself out of bed and have a glass of orange juice, I sit down at my laptop and open my current editorial horror story. Usually, I won't complain too much because this job pays my bills, but I’ve been working on this long manuscript written by some professor who thinks it’s his magnum opus, but it’s so damned boring, only someone who’s getting paid would read it. The first paragraph of his second chapter begins like this:
In the insidious world that surrounds our hero their [sic] is no reason for the tedium that he must overcome as his syndrome is pernishusly [sic] tempting fate while alternately courting the society that robs him of his station.
Huh? I am not trying to make sense of his work, but pushing forward and revising and correcting it as needed. He was very happy with the first chapter – a mind-numbing 67 pages long – and rushed this second one to me, which clocks in at 54 pages, and he wants it back ASAP. After reading that drivel, I know it’s time to take a break and get my morning coffee.
It’s not a well-kept secret that the corner bodega has the best cup of joe around. You can keep your Starbucks and Dunkin’! This cup of coffee is great whether you take it black or with milk and sugar, and it’s always piping hot. Depending on how my morning is going determines how I take it – today I’m definitely taking it black.
Anyway, I’m craving my cup of liquid heaven from Edgar’s place, so I throw on my coat and sunglasses and go down the stoop. I once knew every person who lived in every house on my block. Many of my friends lived here, and we played stickball in the street and every other kind of game. Now I know only a few people left from that time, and I kind of like it that way.
I go past the house next door where my friend Doug Sheehan used to live. Now a Korean family lives there, and they always wear surgical masks. I know that some people are doing that now because of this coronavirus crap they say is going around, but they have been wearing them for years. The next house is where my best friend Jimmy Murphy used to live. Manny Martinez lives there now, and he has a Mexican flag hanging from one pole and an American flag on another.
As I walk up to the store, I take in all the stuff Edgar has in his windows: a Puerto Rican flag, a big statue of the Virgin Mary, an illuminated Budweiser sign, posters of cigarettes on sale, a Boars Head sign, an ATM sign, and pictures of food like bread, cheese, and eggs. Above the door, a big sign reads: “Edgar’s Deli-Market.”
I have been living on Hesker Street in this Brooklyn neighborhood for most of my life. When I was a kid, Edgar’s place was a German deli owned by a chubby guy named Fritz. My Mom and I would go there, and we’d get cold cuts like ham, bologna, and liverwurst. She’d buy potato and macaroni salad and coleslaw. The place smelled good because Fritz’s wife was always cooking in the back room.
After old Fritz died, his son sold the place to an Italian guy named Gino, but he never changed the sign that said it was Fritz’s Delicatessen, so people didn’t know that the food quality had deteriorated until they went in and bought something. The place didn’t smell good because Gino didn’t do any cooking; he had the food brought in from someplace. Mom and I had to take the bus up to Myrtle Avenue to go to the nearest German deli.
When I was in college, the deli on our corner was closed and boarded up. I had a car then, so I could drive Mom to the deli on Myrtle, but then a few years later it closed as the neighborhood changed. No more German deli food for us.
When I first started working in Manhattan, I’d come down the block from the subway station to go home, and one day I saw this guy I knew from high school sweeping out the old deli.
I said, “Hey, Ed, what you doing, man?”
“I just bought this place,” he said.
So, Edgar’s bodega was born. Now, as I stand here all these years later, I can’t believe how much Edgar’s place means to me and all the people in the neighborhood. A few years back they built a big chain grocery store only blocks away from here, but I would never go there except to get something Edgar didn’t carry. Edgar’s bodega is not just a place to get great coffee – it’s like a second home.
I go inside and the bell rings on the door. The place smells as good as when old Fritz ran it. Edgar’s putting something in a paper bag for a customer, but he looks up and says, “Hey, Vinny!”
“Hey, Ed!” I say. In the back of the store, where Fritz used to have racks of hanging sausages and meats, Edgar put in tables and chairs. Now there’s someplace to sit and eat instead of having to walk outside and eat on the go.
I see old Manny sitting at one of the tables. Manny, as usual, is dressed in Dodger’s attire from head to toe – he had those sneakers custom made. Manny moved onto the block around the time when Edgar opened his store, and he and I butt heads as Dodger and Met fans normally do, but we’re otherwise friendly.
At another table is George McBride, who’s like the size of the Hulk next to the diminutive Manny. He lives in what had been my friend Gabe Keller’s house next door to Manny. George is retired from the NYPD, and he sits around in Edgar’s a lot more than he should, but when his wife Florida starts calling his cellphone, George knows it’s time to go.
I go up to the counter, and Edgar is already pouring my coffee. “Hey, how’s it going today?” he asks, just like he always does.
“I’ll be doing fine as soon as I get that drink,” I say.
“Black or not?” he asks.
“Black!” I say, still shivering from being outside.
“It’s gonna be that kind of day then.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Edgar doesn’t worry about that venti or grande crap; he offers either a big or small cup. He knows I always want the big one, and then he puts the cover on the cup and hands me a few napkins. I drop two bucks on the counter and glance at the lottery machine. There are huge jackpots for Mega Millions and Powerball.
“You never play, Vinny. Why don’t you give it a shot?”
I lean forward and whisper, “Because that two bucks will mean I have to go a day without my coffee – I’m on a budget.”
Edgar hands me back my two dollars and says, “Play a game on me.”
Now I’m in a quandary. What the hell do I do? I feel bad about taking the money, but I could insult him if I don’t, and what if, by some odd chance, I win – I have never won anything in my life, not even a game of poker played with matchsticks – and then have to do the right thing and split it with Ed? However, if the incomprehensible thing happens and I win big money, perhaps that would change things with Emily and me.
I take a Powerball card because the jackpot is $50 million more than Mega Millions. I move aside for another customer. I have no idea what the hell numbers to pick. I look at Manny; he’s wearing Jackie Robinson’s jersey. I fill in number 42. The jacket hanging on his chair has 1 on it for Pee Wee Reese’s number, so I scratch in that number. I live at 5631, so I have two more numbers. The date is February 29 – it has to be lucky because it is Leap Year Day, right? My last number?
I look up at Edgar who’s wrapping a sandwich for a customer. “Give me a Powerball number, Ed.”
Without the slightest hesitation, he says, “35!”
I scratch it in, and I’m all set. After the customer leaves, I give Edgar the card and ask, “So, why that number?”
As he slips my card into the machine he says, “I turned 35 today!”
Bingo! Being Leap Year Day and Edgar’s birthday, I’m going to win! I can just feel it. As he hands me the card and my ticket I say, “Thanks for the game, and Happy Birthday!”
“Thanks, man. If you win the jackpot,” he says, and I’m thinking he’s going to say that we have to go 50-50, “you’ve got to be on TV right in my store to accept the check. Deal?”
I nod and smile. “Deal! Thanks again.”
Other customers are coming in, so I go sit at the table next to Manny, who is reading the NY Post while eating an egg sandwich and drinking coffee. George tips his NYPD cap and says, “How you doin’, Vinny?”
I hold up my lottery ticket and coffee cup. “I’m doing pretty good right now.”
“Mathematically speaking,” Manny says without looking away from the newspaper, “your chances of winning are zero.”
“Hey, give the kid a break,” George says.
Kid? I think. Like Edgar, I am turning 35 this year, so I’m not really a kid, but I guess compared to George and Manny I could be considered one. People tell me I look younger than my age – maybe it’s my beard and long hair and the fact that I haven’t started to get any gray hairs yet.
“Manny takes a bite of his sandwich, and then as he chews it, he asks, “George, isn’t your wife named after the TV character Florida?”
“Here we go,” I say, slapping my hand on the table because this always starts something between them.
George puts his big hand up in the air. “No, Vinny, I’m not going to let him get under my skin.”
I unzip my coat because I’m starting to sweat. Manny is unusually quiet, still holding his newspaper with both hands.
“Manny,” George says softly, “my wife was born almost a decade before Good Times was even on the air, so you know she’s not named for the character.”
“You should try getting your facts straight,” Manny says like almost whispering. “The character of Florida originally appeared on the show Maude in 1972, and then got her own series two years later due to her popularity.”
“Is that true, Vinny?” George asks.
I lean back, sip my heavenly drink, and say, “I wasn’t even born then, so I don’t know anything about either show.”
“Well, never mind then,” George says with a wave of his hand. “I just wonder about a man who’s always wearing Dodgers stuff while living in Brooklyn, and they’re out in LA.”
Manny folds his paper, places it on his lap, and takes a deep breath. “On the sacred date of October 4, 1955, I was with my Papi and my brother Raul. We were in a crowd of 62,465 people who got to see my Dodgers defeat the dreadful Yankees and win the World Series. I was only ten years old but felt ten feet tall!”
“But those Dodgers left you and all of Brooklyn two years later,” George says. “They left you in the dust, man!”
Manny sips his coffee and stares quietly ahead at the ice cream freezer and the refrigerator with the beer and soda in it. People in the aisles stop while putting bread or cookies in their baskets, and they wait to hear what Manny is going to say.
“Anyone who ever lived through that moment,” Manny says, controlling himself as best as he can, “will tell you that there was never anything like it before or since.”
Old Jim Ryan, who is wearing a Mets cap and slipping a big can of peaches into his basket, nods his head. He’s one of the few people left around here whom I knew when growing up. “Hey, Manny’s right. We were over the moon. I got drunk for three days; woke up on a bench in Prospect Park with a bump on my head and a smile on my face.”
“Yes, Mr. Ryan,” Manny says shaking a pointed finger at the man, “you’re one of the few who still remember.”
George points at Ryan and says, “But even he’s wearing a Mets cap!”
Ryan turns to get away from the situation and waves his hand as he walks down the aisle. “Have a good day, fellas!”
I sip my coffee again and remember I have to get back to my work, but I’ll wait a few more minutes to see what Manny and George have to say.
Manny leans toward me and asks, “You’re a Mets fan, right?”
Now, of course, this is a rhetorical question meant to stoke a three-way argument of some kind, but I’m not up for it. “Yeah, I am, but…”
“But you know how the Mets were born from the blue blood of the Dodgers and the orange blood of the Giants. You know there would be no Mets without us, right?”
In the past, I’ve pushed back on this one but, like Robert Frost, I’ve got miles to go before I can sleep, so I say, “Yeah, you’re right, Manny.”
Manny nods his head and then looks at me. “You just said I’m right!”
I have my lottery ticket and my coffee; I’m not letting anything ruin my day. “Yep, you’re right, Manny.”
George’s phone starts buzzing and he moans, “Oh-oh!”
Manny claps his hands. “Now the queen bee is looking for her drone.”
George struggles to get the phone out of his pocket, and by the time he does the call has gone to voicemail. “Oh, boy, oh boy,” George says, “I’m going to get going.” George gets up slowly.
I say, “Take it easy, George!”
“Say ‘Hi’ to Flo for me, Georgie Porgie,” Manny says with a laugh.
“You’ll get yours, Manny,” George says before he turns and heads for the door.
“You guys are too much,” I say.
“Ah, it’s all in good fun,” Manny says. “Hey, how is your mother, Vinny?”
“She’s doing okay,” I say, but that’s not really true. Ever since my Dad died, Mom hasn’t been herself. I push her to go visit my younger brother Frankie and his wife on Long Island. I drive her there once a week, and she stays overnight. At least she gets to see the kids, but she is mostly sad all the time.
“Tough thing that happened with your Dad,” Manny says.
I close my eyes and think about how he died on the job over 10 years ago doing something he loved. I can see him wearing his FDNY helmet, with a big smile beaming on his face because he loved that job so much. With his broad shoulders and muscular arms, I thought he could conquer anything, but it was a bad fire in a factory that killed him.
He’d been through so many bad fires and even 9-11. He almost had his 20 years done so that he could retire. He almost bought a beach house in Breezy Point. He almost took Mom on that trip to Europe they were always talking about. Almost is a damn ugly word.
Once Manny finishes his breakfast, he says, “You want the paper?” I haven’t read a newspaper in years, so I take it just for the hell of it. Manny puts on his blue jacket with Pee Wee’s number on it and points to it. “Pee Wee was my hero because he stuck up for Jackie. He was a little guy like me, but a giant man.”
We start walking toward the door, and Edgar’s helping someone, so I hold up the ticket and say, “Thanks, man.”
“Good luck, Vinny!”
I go outside, put the paper under my arm, and my coffee on the window shelf as I zip up my coat as the brisk wind hits me hard. Manny looks at me and says, “I’ve got to go to the bank.”
“Take care, Manny,” I say.
Even in the cold, a group of younger guys is standing outside of Edgar’s place talking and drinking tall cans of beer. A couple of older guys are huddled under the awning having a smoke. Edgar even put in bike racks for the kids in the public school up the block, and their bikes are chained to them every school day.
The streets of this small corner of Brooklyn all seem to converge here at Edgar’s; it’s the heart and soul of the area. Everyone used to say that the big grocery store chain that went up just blocks away was going to put Edgar out of business, but it never happened. Edgar’s has something that a big place like that will never have: loyal and faithful customers, and we all know that he cares about us. Even the big grocer’s employees run down those blocks on their breaks to get coffee and a snack because that java is that good!
I put the lottery ticket in my coat pocket and tap it twice for good luck. I head home to check on Mom in the downstairs apartment, and then I’ll go back upstairs to reheat my coffee and get back to work on professor dumbass’s manuscript.
I wake up the next morning feeling more exhausted than yesterday. I was up late editing and then opened some popcorn, watched Netflix, and drank too many Heinekens to count – I can check the recycling bin, but I’m too lazy.
I lie there thinking about how even though I hate editing, I hated Wall Street more. I hated the office politics crap and taking the subway every day. Now my commute is from my bed to the laptop. Quitting that job was the worst best move I could have ever made in my life.
Mom asks me sometimes about finding a girl. Mom, I’m in my thirties, so stop saying ‘girl’ because it sounds so freaking weird. I went out with Emily for three years, and I loved her, and I thought that she loved me, but when I quit my job, Emily quit us. I guess that tells you something right there, yet I still hang on to the idea of her, and I can’t let that go.
I go down to Dugan’s Bar on Friday nights, but I’m not looking to meet anyone. Mostly, I talk with Sean, the owner of the bar. Some girls go in there and play pool in the backroom, but I’m not interested in trying to meet someone. I haven’t dated much since Emily left me, so my prospects aren’t looking so good.
I struggle to get up, go to the bathroom, and stand and watch myself in the mirror while I pee. I wonder why they would put a mirror over a toilet bowl, but it’s like that down in Mom’s apartment too – the place where I grew up. When our long-time tenant Mr. Whalen died – he moved in upstairs after my Nana Russo died – I moved my stuff out of my old room and took it upstairs. Mom needed her space, and so did I.
As I walk to the bodega, I think about Edgar’s secret – it is the beans, but he won’t say where he gets them. I have asked about them, and other customers have too, but he’s very cagey and always changes the subject. I once saw them in a burlap bag behind the counter, but he had covered up the label. Clever man, that Edgar.
I go in and see Manny and George at their tables in the back of the store and wave to them. I put the lottery ticket in the scanner. “Not a winner” flashes. There goes my idea about winning Emily back.
I look at Edgar. “The story of my life.”
Edgar hands me my cup of coffee. “Maybe next time.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I say, seeing Emily in that black bikini dancing on that beach in Positano. I head back to sit with the guys and start another day.