Sunday, April 29, 2007

Napoleon Van Winkle

Did any truly insane person ever claim to be Napoleon?

That was the standard image of lunacy in so many movies and TV shows for so many years that I'm wondering how it got started.

Most cliches have an origin in reality, so maybe somewhere, someplace, many years ago, some poor bugger slipped his hand under his jacket and shouted "Vive la France!"

I got to thinking about Napoleon the other night as I rode home on the subway. A group of rather large young men got on the N train at 36 Street and stood by the door near me.

One of them was carrying a shoulder bag and a baseball bat, which made me a little nervous. Back in the Seventies, when New York was a real hellhole, these young punks used to walk around with baseball bats.

Anyone could see that they had no intention of enjoying the national pastime, but it would be impossible to prove otherwise. I'm sure had they been stopped by a cop, the little dirt bags would whine about being on their way to the park right now, even if it had been 2 a.m. on a January night.

Of course, this is all water under the bridge, as those little dirt bags must now be middle-aged men, who, I hope, have since put down the baseball bats and become productive members of society.

I think this guy from the other night was legit. It was warm and the presence of the bag suggested that he had really been playing ball someplace.

These guys were loud and while that's annoying, I should be thankful that they weren't violent. It's just like so many people in this city and this world, these guys did not know how to behave in public.

As they got louder, I noticed a man across the way from me. He was sound asleep with his hand in his parka just like...Napoleon.

The position was odd, but what was even stranger was the fact that he didn't wake up, even though this group of young men were shouting and laughing like they were at a Giants game.

I looked a little closer and saw that he was wearing striped navy blue pants, which suggested that he was a security guard. If that's the case, I sure as hell don't want him watching over anything of mine. All that noise and he's still asleep? Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Of course, the poor guy might have worked a double-shift, delivered three babies, and rounded up an international drug cartel before clocking out. In that case, I'd let him sleep in for a few more minutes.

I got off the train and 59th Street and the loud crowd came with me. Napoleon Van Winkle didn't move and he could have gone all the way out to Coney Island and spent the night in the train yard the way he was sawing them off. Gosh, I'd love to be able to sleep like that.

I had another Seventies flashback on Friday when I went to a wine tasting in Downtown Brooklyn. As I walked down Atlantic Avenue, with yuppies scurrying to and fro, a man's voice boomed out of a local mosque in the call to prayer.

That's Brooklyn for you--mosques and yuppie wine bars operating within just a few blocks of each other. Back in the Seventies I would not have walked done Atlantic Avenue for anything, especially on a Friday night.

Of course, there were no yuppie wine bars on Atlantic Avenue back in those days. I used to ride with my father down to main post office in Grand Army Plaza and we'd ride back along Atlantic Avenue, making sure to stay inside the car.

She Comes Down Yellow Mountain

The store fronts were dark and usually empty. Anyone out on the street was either racing to get home or looking for trouble.

I remember seeing this hispanic man attack this black guy, bouncing up and down and punching him, chanting "c'mon, c'mon." The other guy didn't want any part of it and he kept walking. I don't blame him.

My dad said he saw a knife fight going on there on the avenue, with two guys holding knives in one hand and waving their jackets in the other. If I recall the story, the fight ended when the guys spotted a cop car coming down the block and took off in opposite directions.

The wine tasting was fun and I only got mildly crocked. On the way back to the subway, I walked by a bar that has been on Atlantic and Third avenues for years. My dad called it a "bucket of blood" 30 years ago and it was hard to argue with him.

The place was dark, all sorts of lowelifes were hanging around or going inside. There was a peeling paint on the wall of the place reading "Where Good Friends Meet."

Yes, they meet there and plot to murder their enemies.

I liked that saying so much that I used it as a title for my first attempt at a novel. It was a revenge story about a guy who gets double-crossed by his buddy, and the buddy's goons pound our hero to a pulp and toss him into the Narrows.

The hero survives and takes his revenge, but I never did get that story done. I think my characters were hanging out in the bar and thus the saying was--prepare yourself--ironic.

The bar is now a funky music place and I got an earful as I walked by. It still has a dive bar look to it, but they painted over that sign.

I had so much fun Friday night that I didn't make any plans for Saturday night, which sucked. I watched the new Bond flick on DVD--too many ridiculous stunts for my taste--and then...well, then I took a walk around Bay Ridge ostensibly to find a place to hang out, but like many times before, it didn't happen.

The bars were noisy and crowded, filled mostly with young people. There were mobs of young kids, like the subway bunch I mentioned, walking the streets and every so often some schmuck would leave rubber and fly up the street in his car.

I felt like a stranger and it seemed every Brooklyn stereotype was on display--loud mouths, loud cars, just loud in general. But I was also part of the problem.

I walked up to an Irish bar on Third Avenue, but I could hear the music from half a block away as some rather untalented lady was murdering the old Irish standard "Whisky in the Jar." I did an about-face and headed home.

I walked by the Killarney Pub, where I rang in the new year for two years running, and saw it was filled with elderly men, sort of like my dad's nursing home in Coney Island. I'm not ready for the old man's bar just yet.

I'm feeling very lonely lately and I'm not sure what I can about it. I guess the first step is make sure I have plans on the weekend, especially now that winter is over. I've used bad weather as an excuse for too long.

I had more Seventies flashback this morning when NPR did a story about the song "Wildfire," this sappy faux folk song from 30-odd years ago. I know that sounds negative, but I assoicate the song with a girl I was dating at the time.

She was so sensitive and loving, and she just adored that song. She thought Neil Diamond was a poet. And when she dumped my ass she wrote me a long letter saying how sorry she was.

I thought hearing about the song this morning would make me angry, but I actually enjoyed the report. Michael Martin Murphey, the singer, said the song came to him in a dream and they played portions of it during the story.

And I liked it; I was almost teary-eyed when he sang about the girl dying in the snowstorm. And, most importantly, I wasn't mad at the girl anymore.

We're both 50 years old now and I haven't seen her since 1979. I hope she's happy and I hope I find somebody so I don't have to wonder around Bay Ridge on a Saturday night looking for company.

So, I guess my mental state is improving. Or I'm getting so nutty that I don't even realize it. If I start saying that Neil Diamond is a poet, you better call the men in the white coats.

Vive le France!

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