In Da Hood

      Very few who visited the premises at old 231 would argue very strenuously that we were situated in what could be construed as a traditionally ‘bad’ neighborhood. Now some might immediately jump to the conclusion that I mean this in some sort of racial way, which I don’t as the area was a rainbow of diversity. I mean this in an economically run down, lots of scary looking characters about, ‘crack house at the corner’ kind of way. While none of us ever experienced any incidences of violence against our persons, there are plenty of tales to be told that might otherwise have never occurred had the house been situated in Williamsville.           

     Living in an area that some might consider worrisome, the primary concern is generally threat of break in. I knew from personal experience that the house could indeed be easily broken into, demonstrated aptly by Knaus on our first day. While I normally didn’t spend much time letting this condition cause me lack of sleep, there were a few instances where I admit to being just a bit worried. One instance was an occasion where I came into the basement, I think with Aaron and someone else, and found the basement window leading into the backyard wide open. Now, at no other time did anyone ever open this particular window, nor have any cause to this time either. Our first action was to perform a very thorough inspection of every searchable inch of the place, including the fort I had built in the basement, until we concluded that we did not have a new inhabitant. The only conclusion I can draw from this was that we did have a bona fide break in, and the intruder upon seeing our complete lack of anything of value, left discouraged and empty handed. I also feel it possible that Malice made short work of him and devoured the remains entirely; an acceptable resolution as well. To guard against future non-events, I tied enough shit to the basement windows that would have caused plenty of noise and no little inconvenience.           

      The most memorable intruder incident happened one winter’s twilight. I came home to a house empty but for the cat and the freakishly realistic scarecrow in the Florida room. I adjourned to the bathroom to do some light reading and was just finishing up when I thought I heard hushed whispering coming from the kitchen. Cold sweat sprang from every pore. I knew for certain the house was empty previously and from the bathroom I should have been able to hear the side door very clearly. Indecision gripped me. Do I flush? Will doing so spook the intruder/ burglar/ vampire giving him time to leave, or will he rush the bathroom? Do I go out the bathroom window? It was snowing out and I was barefoot, so this seemed out. Or do I just lock the door and sit here, hoping he will take what paltry possessions we have and abdicate without further incident? The bathroom environment was becoming less pleasant by the moment, having not flushed. Time to grow up and be a man Wolf. I flushed and strode out, just as big as billy-be-damned. In the kitchen, gaunt and wraithlike, stood Knaus resplendent in his black leather trench coat, cradling Malice in his arms and whispering sweet nothings into her ear.            

     I recall Aaron telling me of a similar incident where he also felt he was alone on the premises and heard whispering outside his doorway. He also managed to summon up his courage and take charge of the situation. In this instance he grabbed his trusty piñata bat and burst forth with a mighty barbaric yelp. In this case as well, his emergence found a shady looking character in Knaus, standing in the shadows and murmuring to his fuzzy familiar. Reports of the incident indicated Knaus never moved or reacted, simply standing confident that the layers of shellac applied to his head would easily absorb even the most devastating of blows. Aaron’s reaction here was a far cry better from a time where he perceived a knock down, drag out brawl between Dave, Knaus and me to be a hulking intruder ramming himself into our front door to gain entry, to which he responded by quickly hiding his wallet and keys and pretending to go back to sleep.           

     One of the other indicative features that we were not living in the best managed of areas was the proliferation of scam artists. I recall once incident in which Aaron, Knaus and I were taking a winter walk down to Mike’s Big Mouth on Bailey and were approached by a man in apparent need of bus money. His story was that he made it all the way down to the area from Broadway, but forgot to bring enough cash to get back. He estimated the amount to about 5 bucks, when 80 cents and 5 cents per transfer was the going rate. The interesting part about that was that he kept reassuring us, 3 strapping college men in broad daylight, that he was absolutely not mugging us. His insistence on that fact, coupled by the fact that he kept with us for several blocks pleading the funds more and more aggressively, made me begin to think otherwise. “He protestesh too loudly” and all that jazz. Since he never produced a weapon, we never produced cash, as giving in would have meant turning back from the delicious subs we intended to get at Mike’s.            

     The best scammers were the ones who would come right to the door. One evening, I believe either the night of the Wolverines party or a Frank party, a man came to the door with a wonderfully told story about how he needed a few bucks to buy formula for his new baby. Although we knew he was completely full of shit, we took up collection anyway as his heartfelt performance was of such merit to justify reward. The most common type was the ones who would come by and shovel our driveway, then knock on the door to demand compensation. As neither Aaron or I had a car, and really couldn’t care less if it was shoveled or not, generally told them ‘too bad’ and shut the door. Jason, however, was a sucker for the scam every single time and gave the guy money. This I’m sure was one of the many reasons he could never pay the rent on time as once it became known that someone was willing to pay, the driveway was shoveled on a very routine basis with Knaus reaping all the benefits.           

     The shady character himself was not completely immune to surroundings either. One morning Knaus came out to find that someone had the nerve to affront his person by breaking into his ’79 Olds Cutlass. They evidently had no conception of his capacity for retaliatory action. While the contents of the car, consisting of old Transvision Vamp and Shriekback tapes, were left unmolested, the intruder somehow managed to extract a single thin dime that he thought permanently wedged into a crack in the dash. He had spent no little effort trying to coax it out himself and as I result, I believe he had a grudging appreciation for the tenacity of the effort and resulting accomplishment. In another instance, I recall Knaus was spotted by Ann schlumping his way down Comstock, headed home from some mysterious errand. Ann cat-called him I believe, with a few “Hey Baby’s!” and such, inspiring enough fear that he actually began to hurry along at a greatly accelerated rate. Those who know Knaus best understand that he never moved faster than a slow saunter, even in the direst of circumstances (reference the toilet incident).           

     My personal ‘favorite’ incident was the first and only public assault and beating I ever had the misfortune to witness. It was a beautiful summer day and I was just leaving the house to walk to Collector’s for work. As I emerged from the driveway, a beat up old Cadillac came barreling down the street and screeched to a halt around the corner, directly in front of the house. A young man had been walking down Comstock toward the L&T and broke into an immediate run. Four figures simultaneously flung open the doors to the Caddy and burst forth like greyhounds after the rabbit. He made it as far as the L&T and almost made it safely inside, but for the fact that Moustache Guy saw him coming and quickly locked the door. They had him down in seconds and proceeded to kick the crap out of him. Moments later sirens could be heard in the distance and the four assailants quickly disappeared.           

     At the time of this, I had the vague notion to sneak over to the Caddy, still running with all doors open, and abscond with it for the purposes of dropping it off at the police station lot. My job at Collectors had exposed me for several hours each day to heroic selfless figures and idea of vigilante justice had enormous appeal. Fortunately, better judgment prevailed that day as it first occurred to me that they may have seen emerge from the house and therefore knew where I lived, and second, they evidently knew, and possibly even liked, the fellow they were beating the ever loving shit out of. What they would do to me is something I didn’t want to imagine. I never knew what became of any of them.           

     As bad as the neighborhood was, I never really felt any threat of harm or danger. During times of stress, such as when attempting to type out a 20 page paper the night before it was due, I used to clear my head, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, by stepping out into the night and walking to the South Campus to wander around. In one instance I was returning from such a walk when before me appeared a large group of black youths in full gangsta regalia. It was, I believe, the infamous Mailbox Gang. The group parted and let me past without comment. I think that as part of the neighborhood we were afforded a certain level of protection or at least safe passage. Although I doubt the hood has become much worse, I have little temptation to set forth down there on foot, even in the light of day.

The Family, Guy

“Hey Guy!”, I was greeted with great enthusiasm by the cashier of the L&T Deli on the corner of Comstock and [street], kitty corner from our new digs at old 231. I startled slightly, for in my pocket I held a secret in the form of a carefully chalked NYS drivers license. I was no casual shopper that day, nosing about unheard of brands of chips in search of a treat, but an agent of fools, chosen for the scant 3 month delay before my 21st birthday to procure as much beer as the crumpled ones in my pocket would buy. Failure in this mission would mean asking Knaus to drive us to the Unity Mart on Bailey. My testicles shriveled at the thought.

“Ohhhh! You like beer Guy?” He saw right though me and discerned my purpose by the very aisle I traveled. “We got beer on sale Guy! American Beer. Only $5.99!” His exuberance only tightened my nerves. Was he anticipating my every move? Why couldn’t he aim his intrusive chatter at the old lady eyeing the dusty glass bottles of Clamato? Was this the old entice and pounce? I could see him luring me up to the counter with the promise of selling me below cost suds, only to confiscate my license for a fat reward from the local politzi. It was clear to me that in our crack infested neighborhood, entrapping foolish boys was likely a high priority.

I was in too deep already. Gripping the built in handle of the American Beer (a brand not carried at any other place, but existing only in the tiny sub-dimension occupied by the L&T), I approached the counter. My plan was simple. He would examine the ID I presented to him. I would watch him closely for the slightest squint of eye or curl of frown, and upon appearance of either, I would snatch my fraudulent document and bail. The L&T would be off limits thereafter of course, but I consoled myself with the presence of a Wilson Farms not 2 miles away.

His face beamed as he took the beer from me and rang it up. It really was cheap – the $5.99 included tax and deposit too! I would, however, quickly discern the reason not 10 minutes later. I waited, awash with panicked agony, for the inevitable, “You got ID Guy?”, but it never came. He made more than the required small talk, sniffing out how much anticipated new business he could expect from the neighborhoods new residents, but nothing more. Thus began our relationship with the eager young salesman, who had a penchant for calling any male customer “Guy”, and who subsequently became known by that generic moniker as well.

Forever marked and remembered for that first purchase, I was unable to enter the establishment without a cheerful, “Hey Guy! You want beer guy?”, even if my last 8 purchases were sardines, stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, parmesan cheese, more sardines, a brave attempt to try Clamato, stamps, Dinty Moore, and more sardines. The sardines, for the record, were fried in a pan with soy sauce and parmesan cheese for breakfast each day to the horror and complaints of my more sensitive house mates. I was forever branded ‘Beer Guy?’ and so it was to be. His ability to spot me was uncanny. Once I can remember him calling out to me, as I walked though a blinding white out on the other side of the street. “Guy! We open Guy! You want beer Guy?”

In those early days, it was Guy and Guy only who manned the battlements, rang up our purchases and wantonly marked up stamps. Like debutants making their dramatic first appearances in society, we were introduced to new, exciting members of the Guy clan. First only appearing with Guy himself as a supporting cast, they eventually supplanted him all together, until he was but a poignant memory to be greeted with abundant joy on those rare times he was glimpsed.

Our first introduction was to the sullen hirsute brother, cousin or uncle who would become known as ‘Mustache Guy’. Our naming convention required no more imagination than what the original entailed. Where Guy was a veritable shining beacon of eager entrepreneurship, Moustache Guy was a scornful rebel; a brimming cauldron of disdain and cruelty. When encountered alone, no greeting was offered, nor accepted. On one memorable occasion, my heart skipped a beat when he spoke directly to me and requested my presence at the counter. “Grab a hold of this a second” Still dumbfounded and overjoyed at the attention the brute deigned to show me, I blindly grabbed at the slick black protuberance he held forth. As if from air, Guy the original appeared knocking my hand away, “No Guy! No grab!” In horror and seeming slow motion, I turned toward the betrayed Mustache Guy in time to witness fiery blue lightening crackling across the previously unnoticed nodes of the device. I leap back; Mustache Guy’s head thrown back in perfect synchronization, cackling in glee at the joke he attempted. Shaken, I resolved to avoid the shifts he was known to be present.

Far more preferred was the aptly named Girl. If Guy was to be absent, one could only hope that her far more agreeable form occupied the counter, impertinent attitude a valued accoutrement. Her greetings were full of playful sarcastic wit that added to her ambiguous, ageless quality. Anyone would agree that she could use a good spanking, and there is no doubt that volunteers would be plentiful. Before anything of the sort, or even flirtations could manifest, she let slip in casual conversation her true age – a shocking 7 years my junior. The perception quickly changed from her as a playful woman to a precocious brat, but she was still a far more welcome sight than her mustachioed cousin.

The rest of the Guy clan I always considered second stringers; ancillary angels to the hold trinity of Guy, Girl, and Moustache Guy. Old Guy would sporadically appear once in a blue moon, and although clearly a respected elder, was virtually useless as a proprietor lacking the skills to speak English or discern the workings of the register. Even rarer was Old Girl, presumably Old Guy’s wife. Her function was to deliver important messages in Korean to whoever was working the counter. For one happy month we were treated to Fat Guy, who mirrored the personality of Guy so well that I thought he was a latter version of the same, fallen victim to the caloric wares of the store. As unannounced as his arrival, so was Fat Guys departure into mystery. Hazy memory flashes hint of another guy, Other Guy, but he may be only urban legend and is otherwise unremembered.

The beauty of the L&T was that they opened early, stayed open late, had food you could make into some sort of meal for under $2, cheap beer (with something always on sale Guy!), and would carry anything at all they thought you might buy. Stamps, an invaluable commodity, were made available for a 15¢ premium above face value. For the impromptu largish party, beer balls were available in back. Because they didn’t also carry the necessary pumping mechanism, the one and only purchase of such required us to crack open the top and scoop it out with cups, adding to the sticky mess on the kitchen floor. The Guys even had the foresight to install a hidden cabinet behind the cigarettes that housed all manner of illegal fireworks during the summer months. Although the risk drove the price of them beyond the reach of my paltry $4,000 a year annual income, it did my heart good to know they were there.

It’s been 13 years now since I was last propositioned as ‘Beer Guy’, but if I walked into a deli today and heard the same words, I would not even blink, so tattooed are they on my mind.