The Neighborhood

After that we felt we had done what we could do. At least we had tried to be available but she didn’t care or want help. We would ask after her in the months ahead and Kenny would say. “Thanks, she’s ok” and then one day he was sitting in a chair outside the TV shop looking especially miserable. Pig pen was sitting next to him and nuzzling him as dogs will do when they know something is wrong, that their friend is blue.

“She gone Rick. She gone. Aretha gone, passed away. They took her out of there yesterday.” He shook his head and a tear ran down his cheek.

“I am really sorry Kenny. I don’t know what to say. We liked her. Couldn’t understand what was wrong.”

And we never did and Kenny never told us. We suspected it had to do with alcohol or drugs but there was no evidence of that when we visited and she didn’t look jaundiced like people with cirrhosis can look or strung out like drug addicts. She just wasted away for no apparent reason, as though the motivation to keep living abandoned her. ‘Can it do that, be like that?’ I wondered.

It seemed to me in my youth that the life force was stronger than anything no matter what your personality was or your mental condition. It was a type of faith I had, was born with I guess, that no matter how low you fall or how mean the world, it was still ok, that something would prevail somehow, that life would prevail. Aretha’s life and death made me wonder about that. Maybe what was true for me was not true for everyone. Maybe my peculiar understanding was a naïve one. And yet it was in me deep, a sense that I was taken care of and supported spiritually despite my failures and self-abuse.

Not long after that we didn’t see Kenny anymore. I expect he lost the apartment after Aretha died and had to find new shelter. Tom didn’t seem to know where he was and I wondered if Kenny might have gone back down south where rural poverty was better than urban poverty. At least it was warm and there was plenty to eat from the gardens and vegetable stands and chicken coops. Nobody seemed to care that he was gone and that surprised me, another lesson of the neighborhood. Life was like a series of scenes, still photographs interrupting the flow just long enough to focus, take it in, and then move on to the next one. Nothing was permanent and the neighborhood gang was used to that fact, enjoying the moments together and letting it all go at the same time.

Then Pig Pen left. One day he was just gone. It was common for him to disappear for a few hours at a time and even overnight once in a while and I think those overnights got more frequent as Tom and the rest of us sort of lost interest in him. The novelty of his outstanding personality and talent wore off and he was just another mouth to feed. Tom could barely look after himself so Pig Pen became a burden, I guess. I wondered if Piggy had been hit by a car but I doubted that very much since he was the most capable urban dog anyone ever knew about. My sense was that he stayed around as long as the love was there. When it faded he took off. But even for a “man” like Pig Pen, Brooklyn was not a safe place. I had only to remember that Tom found him with a coat hanger around his neck tied to a stop sign. Thinking about that really bothered me and I wished I had taken him in, but I was not much better than Tom about being responsible for my own life. That thought fizzled and, like the boys on the block, I just “let it go”. Another chapter closed.

Caroline and I were still meditating but I stopped going to the Kumar group once I figured out that he was fucking all the women there and just using his white robes and mantra to attract the vulnerable ones. That made me wary of gurus. And Kumar’s capers were a common story. We had friends; people Caroline knew who were into peace, love, and meditation, Trish and John Cohen. Trisha was deep into eastern spirituality as was Caroline by now. John, like me, was following as best he could. It seemed like there was something in it all but we were less inclined to jump in with both feet and I was not jumping at all, at least vis-a-vis the guru trip. I felt like a fool to be in a group where the guru was sticking it into all the lovely nubile young cross legged maidens while I was saying my mantra and pulling my pud. It was insulting. Trish and John were quite progressive sexually speaking and I came to find out that she was fucking all the gurus within a hundred miles of New York and it didn’t bother John at all.

I was kind of shocked again and again feeling left out somehow, but it was a relief in a way to know that these white robed mother fuckers from the east were just a bunch of horny charlatans. At the same time I knew by now that meditation itself was valuable and interesting. We still meditated every morning for an hour and another hour in the evening. Maybe that helped me from getting worse with drugs and mental defeat.

Meditation was still very difficult for me; Caroline had an easier time, was less restless than I was. It was never easy for me to sit still in school as a kid. Even now I have to get up and move, go outside, do something active. It was very tough for me. And yet, sometimes I would hit periods in meditation that were very peaceful, when time would just pass. Images from my life would pass through and I felt that “things” were being worked out somehow.

One morning in meditation I saw myself just as I was, sitting on the floor of the loft on my cushion. But I was looking down from way up high, higher than the ceiling and I could see every detail of the loft. On other occasions I could look around and see everything in the room
but my eyes were closed; I saw through my eyelids as if they were not there. These kinds of things caught my interest and, if nothing else, made me aware of the power of the mind. It made me want to go further but not with the help of any guru.

Harold’s fixation on India persevered. The big day had almost arrived and we had a sendoff party for him. Bobby the baker brought some pita bread and Caroline cooked some vegetarian food because, Harold, being Hindu now, was not eating meat. While a couple of us were playing chess in the bedroom, the rest hung around the tiny kitchen asking Harold about India and what he hoped to find there. With his long beard and always the tamboura in tow sitting comfortably against the wall in its case, he seemed the perfect seeker after truth, soon to be enlightened by the special teacher who, no doubt, was awaiting him. ‘When the pupil is ready the master appears!’

Angel, the white knight, was another one in the neighborhood who attended Harold’s group in Manhattan. Also there was a young woman from Tom’s apartment, Sue. She was in that group too. She was divorced and had a cute young son about six or so. I don’t remember if Tom introduced her to Harold or if it was the other way around. She had gotten Angel into it I remember; I think they used to hang out together. Angel was a ladies’ man. He was a great character, like a Don Quixote, all dressed in white, riding his big Harley and bringing truth and justice to all. That was his fantasy- the white knight- and just the fact of it was a relief from regular life. His visits lifted us up.

But even the white knight had reality do deal with; currently it was the fact of his girlfriend’s pregnancy. He was in denial about this and thinking maybe it was a trick.

“Rick can you believe this shit man? How do I know she is pregnant? Are you kidding me man. Women got tricks like that Rick. Don’t you know that?”

“Angel, amigo, I don’t know anything about it but somebody told me she looks like she is carrying a basketball under her shirt. That usually means they are pregnant.”

“Aw Rick, man, I know you are right. My mother says the same. She say ‘Como se puede cubrir el cielo con la mano?’ Yeah”.

That was a good one I thought.” How can you cover the sky with your hand?” Nice!

“My mother’s pissed man” Angel said. “She knows she will be raising the baby, sure as hell. But when she sees it man, she going to love it for sure.”

That thought pepped him up for a minute. He was such a loveable guy and I hoped nothing would interfere with his life of dressing all in white and riding his big motorcycle all around town inspiring the people, many of them good looking young women. I had a feeling his mother was going to be able to start her own orphanage or day care center with the offspring of the white knight!

Harold took off for India and we didn’t hear anything right away. As always during this time I was focused on chess mostly and getting high which was running me down. I couldn’t feel right about the life I was leading but I was stuck, with no direction out of it.

Tom on rescue / photo copyright Ricker Winsor
Tom on rescue / photo copyright Ricker Winsor
When I started learning chess from Tom that was the main reason for our friendship. He would take me over to his apartment where the board was set up in the bedroom since the living room was hardly ever used, and we would play with nice sized wooden pieces on a good wooden board. He was proud of the professional set up. Naturally the TV was on in there all the time which made it actually a little less oppressive than it would have been otherwise. He would roll a couple of joints and we would smoke and he would make the first move. Almost immediately panic would set in as I tried to defend myself on the board. Like a juggernaut of power he would hunt me and kill me with his moves. Tom , like everyone , was influenced by the playing style of Bobby Fischer who was known to have said when asked why he liked chess so much,” I like to crush their egos.” That is how we understood the game, so when I would ask Tom, “How did you do against Anthony the other day?” he would say, “I crushed him mercilessly.” That was the Brooklyn approach to chess; no mottle coddling or mercy!

And it went on like that for about six months, six months of getting beaten, badly beaten in the beginning, and the beginning lasted a long time. But I have my ways. I got some chess books and I started going uptown in Manhattan to the Chess House and watch the good European players. I even played some games there myself against much better players who also beat me mercilessly. But I learned from them.

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