Sunday, January 31, 2010


Would-Be Cell Phone Thief Foiled By Biblio-Gap

Romano is a black man whiter than me; the kind of black man who plays squash. And this Sunday night, wrapping up a weekend of ceaseless bourbons on the rocks, he was playing Scrabble with me at Carly Rae’s when a fellow slid in looking markedly out of place, even among we of the Unshaven and Drunk.

The interloper wore a Pacers jersey that draped well below his crotch, above overly-long jean shorts, and he approached Romano and me at the table without hesitation.

“Man, you gotta cell phone?” he asked me. His bottom lip was twice the size of his top one, but I couldn’t tell whether he’d been busted in the chops or he’d gone around his whole life looking that way.

“Yeah, I’ve got one,” I told him. There was a time not many years before when I would have continued to hand it over to him under the friendly assumption he needed to use it in a bad way, but this time I continued with a battery of questions instead. “Why do you ask?”

“Can I make a call to this number?” he sputtered, pulling out a crinkled Post-It note with a series of characters scrawled on it in pencil. The paper was so emaciated it reminded me of many times in elementary school when I’d have a woefully runny nose and instead of skeeching every last of the teacher’s Kleenex from her desk, I’d crumple lined paper repeatedly into a makeshift tissue, worn thin enough to fold over my nose and blow—but resilient enough to actually catch snot and not embarrass myself. That process took some patience and a measure of rhinocranial discipline in light of that crazy nasal drip that can stream forever when you’re a snot-nosed punk with bad allergies. I recalled all this looking at this vagabond’s Post-It note in his chalky hand. …The writing on it looked more like a bank account number than seven digits and a prefix, and it looked like it had resided in his pocket for months.

“You need to use my phone to call that number?”


“Who are you calling? I’ll need to know first.”

“My boss.”

“Cool! Where do you work?”

“I cut hair. Professionally,” he claimed.

“But where is it located, the place where you cut hair professionally?”

“At the—I need to call my boss so he can take me to his car—my boss’s car is right over on Brook.”

I kept grinning at him. “I’m unclear… You need to get your boss to pick you up in his car, to take you to get his own car?”

“He got a truck, also.”

“But Brook Street is a block away. Can’t you just walk there? It’s a beautiful night out.” I paused and, noting the glint of sweat on his forehead—or was that just grease?—I added, “Okay a bit warm maybe, but still nice for September.”

He pressed on, gripping the note now with both hands in front of him, his thumbs on top. “I just need to call my boss so I can cut his hair tonight.”

“I see,” I said shaking my head. “I understand the urgent need for haircuts at 10pm on a Sunday.” I really did. …I looked at Romano and then back at the guy. Romano threw in, “Can’t you use the restaurant’s phone? They probably have a phone here you can use.”

He repeated, “Man, I just need to call my boss so I can get his car and cut his hair.”

“What’s wrong with your boss’s car? The one on Brook?”

“It’s out of gas.”

“Dude,” I said excitedly. “I’ve got just what you need! I’ve got two gallons of gas in my car. In a plastic gas can—I keep it for just such occasions in my trunk, and you can have it!”

His face sagged.

“Seriously!” I nudged him on the arm. “My car’s just outside. I’ll take you to go get it right now. Come on!”

This was all true, because I did have two gallons of gas for such occasions, and by all appearances what he really needed was some gasoline to pour into his boss’s fuel hatch. In fact, this was the second can of gas I kept stored in my trunk in a year. Just months before this night, I’d given a ride to an entreating black woman and her venerable, cane-toting, sweet-old harmless and clueless grandfather several blocks to their supposed rendezvous point with [Someone?], and when she asked for a couple of dollars to get gas for her [Someone’s?] car parked across the street, I told her, then just as excitedly as now, that I could do her one better. I dug in my trunk and extracted a new plastic gas can with two gallons of unleaded in it, handed it to her, and drove off wishing them well. In my rearview, I could see the woman turn to her hapless grandpa and ask, “What the hell I gonna do with this thang?” Petrol is, after all, what she’d asked for.

…Our flailing con-artist this time persisted: “Yeah, but I need to call my boss first!”

His story by now was so overtly fishy that I expected a seal to sidle up, bark, and clap his rudders. The usual human part of me felt a little bad for giving this guy a hard time, but what really came to the fore of my mind was genuine curiosity.

I continued my grilling. “You’re going to collect his car and then go to his business to cut his hair?”


I smiled. “What business does he own? I mean where is it?”

“Aw,” he slid back his red baseball cap (on backward) and scratched the top of his cornrows. “Uh, the Rudyard Kipling. Over on Oak.”

“Sweet! A barber who owns a bar, too? He owns the Rud?”

The Rud was an historic bulwark for local performing artists, a tavern that served unique dishes and an eccentric scene for bands, poets and authors, filmmakers. I’d had many good nights there, and our interloper sensed it. With a kind of affected pride, he boasted, “I dug the foundation for that place, man.”

Romano and I traded glances. Romano pushed up his glasses, folded his hands, and said, “That must have been like 70 or 80 years ago.”

“Wait,” I said, cocking one brow toward the poor bastard. “You’re older than you actually look, right?”

He smiled timidly, “Awm, how old do you think I am?” His bottom lip glistened like a bloated pink slug.

I gauged he looked about 35 plus 8 years or so of fairly rough street living, so he discernibly looked about 43… in Street Years. But I told him, “You look about 35,” and quickly asked, “So you’re going to the Rudyard Kipling: What’s your boss’s name?”

“Uh, Rudy. Rudy Kipling.”

So now the jig was up, and after Romano and I laughed very hard for a full minute and explained that Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book in the late nineteenth century, the guy excused himself in a polite tone. “Just forget about it,” he said, and floated toward the door. He didn’t have it in him to be nasty, and perhaps he would have been a far better con-thief/cell phone snatcher-pawner if he were. I hoped any sting of embarrassment or failure he felt dissipated as soon as he hit the sidewalk. Shit, if the guy had simply asked for money, I would have slapped cash in his paw and wished him luck. Every panhandler and rustler should know this about me by now; I should wear a sign. But some—homeless or not—feel they need to play games.

“That was fun,” Romano said.

And then I scorched him in Scrabble, all the while begging him to make up words, for his sake, to give him some extra scoring leverage. If they sounded good, they’d be permissible. For instance, WQERTBY would not slide, but GOPEN—why not? It doesn’t violate accepted rules of English morphology. We could call it Crabble™, and he would get bonus points if he could furnish a definition.

go-pen intransitive verb (2008) : imperative compound of go + open : <Gopen the fridge and fetch me a beer, beeotch!>

…Romano refused, insisting to play by the rules and lose with dignity. He bought us another bourbon with a splash of water.

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