Marian and I came home from our bars and traded cocktail napkins like playing cards. Hers was drawn by a thin girl who thought she was a Satanist. It was a drawing of a fantasy creature. “A lemur person,” the girl had said, and signed it, “-Rabid.”
Mine was a cartoon drawing and a few sentences in bad French. I worked at a French bar and everyone tried to speak French. It said, “I’ve had too much wine. I can’t feel my legs. I feel like a tree. I’m floating.” I thought it was pretty good, especially the cartoon.
Then she played the trump. It was written in red ink: "I agree. I concur. Absolutely. You’re right." On the side there was a crazy scrawl ending in a cartoon toothy girn, like a graffiti tag. Then, postscript, a title to a piece: "How to get along with Albert." Marian grinned.
I knew Albert from her bar. He was about sixty-five years old. He was scrawny and bent but he was quick. He ordered hot tea when it was early or when he had no money, and Rum and Coke with no ice when the sun went down. The bartenders all knew not to give him ice.
Albert liked to talk. When someone disagreed with him, which was often, and tried to argue, he would roll his head backward on sinews like railroard tracks, and squint his fierce tired yes with righteous exhaustion. "Yeah, man, I know, I know." Then he would set his head level, sigh through his teeth, peel back his eyelids until the eyes shone like dusty comets and tell them exactly why they were wrong, usually with a joke that was not laughed at and he would frown at the lack of humor in his opponent. Everyone was an opponent to Albert. Then he would tilt his head back down towards his drink, slurp, and hobble up the steps outside for a cigarette. He was smarter than everyone and he knew it, and the reason they didn’t know it was a mystery to him.
I met him several times later in the middle of the afternoon (tea) or early evening (rum), and even with the napkin as my secret weapon (I agree, I concur), it was very hard to get alone with Albert. But he took a liking to me because I backed off when he rolled his head back and squinted, and I didn’t try to explain why. Also, bought him a drink. And Albert started to get along with me.
He was a good storyteller, with expert timing. His jokes were usually crude but always good, and he loved an audience, even if it was just me. He was a comic; we went to see him once on his birthday. A very classic performance–piano and satin suit. Not your mother’s Danny Kaye, but an old song and dance man to be sure. Once he had you, he wouldn’t stop, except sometimes for a cigarette.
Albert told me about his roommate, a man who changed his name from Wilbur Perry to Akkam Haseem. "That’s funny," he said (pause, sip, look away), "because he looks just like this nigger Wilbur Perry!" Wilbur was a jazz musician. "A Jazz Musician." He said each word separately. "Do you know what that is? A jazz musician is somebody that play saxaphone real bad when I’m trying to sleep. Albert was not a fan of religious people, phonies, or people who interrupted, and since Wilbur was all those things, Albert just packed a suitcase and left.
“Better to be homeless than to put up with that nigger,” he said, ha ha, and dipped his lips into his glass. It was a strange laugh, and his face got tight again very quickly.
A few days later he came into the bar nursing his bloody right hand with his left. He had just been mugged a block away. Marian brought him tea, on the house, and he just sat and mumbled.
I saw him again, and as always he would talk and I would listen. The same jokes, the same stories. Finally one night he stopped mid-act. His face got tight again, like the last time. “Hey, kid, I need a place to stay tonight.” He hadn’t found anywhere else to live since he left Wilbur, and the money he got from the government never lasted long. It was December and it was cold.
One hour later, on a Queens-bound train, he was telling the same stories and the same jokes, and I, remembering the napkin, would chuckle and agree whenever possible. If you’re clever there’s always a way to agree honestly, at least a little. I lived in Briarwood, which is almost in Jamaica, the end of the line. It took about an hour to get from the Village to my apartment.
Albert began to look worried, and said, "Uh, say, uh, how much further?" He coughed a lot.
"Just three more stops," I said. I was looking at the Barcardi Rum ads on the top of the train car. They showed smiling, tan men with their arms around women.
Albert got up, looked around at the one ot her passenger in the car who was half-asleep, scurried to the end of the car, and pissed in the corner.
We walked from the subway to my apartment. An empty bag of chips rusted with the wind, but it was frozen to the ground. It was a short walk, but felt long because of the wind. Back home we drank coffee and thawed. He talked until four in the morning, explaining how stupid everybody was. He had an answer for everything, always quick and always aggressive. He especially hated believers, and he knew that I was one, so he tried to offend whenever possible.
"Six days? What about all the dinosaurs, man? Six days, huhm, yeah, and Adam and Eve? Sheeeeit." And he laughed.
If it was offensive, I waited, and if it was funny I laughed. It was usually both.
In the morning he took a hot shower and a pair of my socks. “Do you know what laughter is?” he said. “Laughter is a luxury. That’s one thing I believe in. The luxury of laughter. That’s why I like you, kid. You know how to laugh.”