Friday, October 26, 2007

Stake Out

Friday night, 7 p.m. I was doing a stake out at a Thai restaurant on 28th Street and Third Avenue.

With all that rain washing over the asphalt, I was glad to be inside.

From where I was sitting, I had a perfect view of the apartment building across the street.

Now all I could do was sit, eat, and wait for the subject to show up.

This wasn't the original plan for my evening. I was thinking of going to Barnes & Noble at Union Square and catch a reading by Paul Krugman.

I read that guy's column all the time and I figured it would be fun to hang out with like-minded people.

But my aunt was coming back to New York after spending the summer in the Berkshires and her bus was due in at 3:45 p.m.

I expected her to call me at my office when she arrived at her apartment and then I'd suggest that we have dinner together.

Only I never got the call.

So I headed up to her apartment and asked the doorman to announce me. No soap. She wasn't in.

It was past 6 p.m. Her bus should have come in hours ago and it doesn't take that long to get down to her place from the Port Authority.

I knew I wouldn't enjoy the Krugman reading if I was worrying about my aunt and I suspected that, given his popularity, the place would be packed to the gills.

I had gone to see Al Franken at the same store a few years ago and the place was so crowded I wound up watching him on a closet circuit TV set up one flight below. So much for your live readings.

As I thought about my aunt, I started having a slow motion panic attack. I told myself that everything would turn out all right, but I realized I just wanted everything to be all right. I had no idea where my aunt was.

I've done this before, many times, actually. If I can't get ahold of someone close to me, my mind instantly cranks out a 3-D surround sound disaster movie starring my missing loved one.

I inherited this trait from my mother and I don't think I'll ever shake it.

I prepared myself for a long night. I grabbed my table at the Thai place and picked a few things on the menu.

As I watched the city's masses go by my window--homeless guy pushing a wagon-load of soda cans, old lady in running shoes clutching an umbrella and a Duane Reade bag--I told myself there had to be a reasonable explanation for my aunt's vanishing act.

I just had no idea what it could be.

I can't take any more misery, I heard myself think, I can't take any more funerals or hospital visits, not so soon after the old man's death.

Forget Me Not

My psyche has been getting a bit of a workout over the last 12 hours. On the way home Thursday night I stopped at my local grocery store and picked up a bottle of Diet Pepsi and a container of Quaker Oatmeal.

It was late and I was tired. As I crossed Fourth Avenue, some douche bag on a bicycle came whistling down the street doing a karaoke number with his I-pod.

He got a little too close for my liking, we exchanged dirty looks, and he rode off, hopefully to have an abrupt rendezvous with a sanitation truck. I did my usual B-movie tough guy fantasy of bitch-slapping the latest person in this town to piss me off.

I got home, got ready to read my e-mails and turn in when I found my groceries were missing. I sometimes put stuff down and completely forget where they are, but this was different. The shopping bag was not in the house.

I thought I might have left my stuff at the store, but, hell, that was impossible. I couldn't have done that, just walked out of the place and left my oatmeal and soda on the counter.

I was cursing and complaining to the fates and the four walls until I finally relented: I'd have to go back to the store and risk looking like an idiot.

It was nearly midnight and I still had more day of work, but I got my coat on and trudged back to the story. The alley cats rule the streets at this time of night.

Instead of hiding or sneaking from one trash can to another, the feral felines walk boldly down the sidewalk as if they're heading to the office...which I guess they are, in their own way.

I walked back into the store and asked about my goods. It turns out I had left them there and the owner, who was preparing to close, put them back on the shelf.

It was almost a happy ending, except I was bothered at being in this situation in the first place. How the hell did I forget my stuff at the counter? Was my brain that occupied or is this first step down the slide to dementia?

When I got home I saw the owner had given me regular Pepsi, not the diet crap I crave so desperately. I'll exchange it tomorrow. At least I have my oatmeal.

So There I Was...

I polished off my vegetable rolls and saw a woman in a red overcoat crossing Third Avenue. Was that her?

I wasn't sure, not from this angle, so I watched as she reached the curb, walked a few hundred feet onto 28th Street and turned into my aunt's building.

Okay, I thought, if that's her, she'll get my message and call me on my cell.

I waited, imagining my aunt riding up in the elevator, going into her apartment and checking her messages. The time was passing, as were people on the street.

The old lady with the running shoes and the umbrella came back--from another direction--only she didn't have the Duane Reade bag anymore.

Too much time had gone by. My aunt should be in her place by now, she should have gotten my message...message, my ass, she should have called me the minute she put the lights on. She must know I'm worried about her.

I called my home number. My cell phone decided to get stupid on me and broke the connection, so I dialed again. There was one message, coming in at 6:29 p.m.

I quickly tapped out the code, but there was nothing but a loud click, and the robot voice asking me if I wanted to hear the message again. Hear what again, dumb-ass? They--whoever they were--didn't leave a message.

What to make of this--my aunt was calling me from a phone booth but was grabbed from behind, an ether-soaked handkerchief held over her mouth, and dumped into a steamer trunk? Maybe my next call would be a ransom demand.

I finsihed my plate of rice noodles and chicken. It was time to get out of this place, so I signaled for the check.

There were three young women sitting next to me and in between eating my meal, watching my aunt's building and checking out the rain-slick faces on the avenue, I caught bits and pieces of their conversation.

They were talking about dating and one of them said she was glad her parents lived upstate so she had a little of space between them and her private life.

She was apparently dating a foreign guy, who hadn't had many girlfriends, and she said he had a lot of "ethnic traits," except I thought she said "epic traits." I was making a note of that until I realized my mistake.

Then I heard this little gem:

"If you decide you're a lesbian..."

I don't know how that sentence concluded and I'm not sure I want to know. If you decide you're a lesbian, more power to you. I admire decisiveness.

Cup of Joe

I moved my stake-out over to the Starbucks across the street. I ordered a piece of bananna nut loaf cake and some kind of ice tea-lemonade drink.

The fellow behind the counter was very helpful--too helpful, really--and asked me a series questions about flavors and sweetening as he prepared my order.

I couldn't make out what he was saying, so I just kept saying yes to each of his queries and then I started wondering what the hell this stuff was going to taste like when--and if--I finally got it.

I grabbed my drink before he could ask any more questions and looked for a seat. The tables were all taken, so I thought I might resume my spy routine at one of the window seats.

They were pretty filled, except one at the end of the row. Unfortunately some Euro-trash blowhard was in the next seat, hog-calling into a cell phone in some unrecognizable tongue.

I took one of the interior seats, which offered absolutely no view at all, and called my aunt. No answer.

It was 7:30 p.m. I decided I'd call my sister at 8 p.m. No need to freak out the whole family just yet.

I polished off the tea-lemonade, which was rather tasty, and called my aunt one more time. And she picked up the phone.

Of course I wanted to scream at her, but I was too busy being relieved. The bus ride took forever, she said, and she couldn't get through to my home number's answering service for some reason.

And my cell phone number? She didn't think to call. All right, fine. I went up to her place and we chatted for a while. It was good to see her alive and well and not on a the back of a milk carton.

We skipped the dinner plans as was already taken care of from soup to nuts. I walked her down to the corner and then she headed off to a local Chinese place and went downtown to get my train.

As I walked down to 14th Street in the mist, I recalled this childhood memory that's been replaying in my head for the better part of a week.

I had just gotten out of my kindergarten class at P.S. 102 and my parents came to pick me up.

I was sitting in the back seat of my dad's car and I had just shown my parents a paper where I had written my name: "R-o-b-e-r-t."

"That's very good," my mother said, obviously proud. "Now you just have to learn how to spell 'Lenihan'."

I remember being a little confused. I was Robert; I didn't need another name. This one was plenty.

I was wondering why this memory has been coming back to me so much lately and tonight I think I figured out why.

I felt so safe in that car with my parents. Both my mom and dad were young and healthy and I was the star, sitting in the back seat of my dad's big old Chevy Biscayne.

I wasn't worried about missing relatives, selling the house, making my way in this world or finding the woman of my dreams. I wasn't worried at all.

I reached Union Square and saw barriers and portable fencing around the Barnes & Noble. Clearly there had been a need for crowd control for Krugman's appearance.

I noticed a woman holding a door open for two others and I could tell from behind that she was a panhandler who hangs around my office on Wall Street.

I give her a buck every time I see her and she always responds by saying "God bless ya."

We made eye contact and exchanged hellos. It was strange seeing her so far uptown.

"I took care of you this afternoon," I said, cheap bastard that I am. "I thought you hung around Wall Street."

"There was no one down there," she said.

"You live around here?"

"No, I live in Staten Island."

It occurred to me that I've been giving this woman dollar bills for over a year now and I know virtually nothing about her, not even her name.

One time last summer I had joked with her that I was an easy mark because you could see my bald head from a block away. She responded by pulling me in close and kissing the top of my coconut.

"Leave your bald head alone!" she declared.

I spent the next half-hour in my office men's room with my head under a powerful jet of hot water. It's only a dollar, dear, please try to control yourself.

Tonight, I didn't like the idea of leaving her out in the rain, so I took out my wallet and handed over another buck.

"Why are you doing this, Papi?" she asked. "You gave me money before."

"It's been a good night," I said and walked to the train station.

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