SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
January 21, 2018

The Chatty Albanian

 

I lit a second smoke while standing outside waiting for the car to show. I was on my way to my friends Ken and Laura’s on the Lower East Side. I hadn’t been there in about two years. I knew finding the right door in the middle of the block—let alone the proper buzzer in and amongst the array of dozens of buzzers—would be tricky, so I decided to skip the train and splurge on a car instead. It would at least get me a little closer to their door without having to rely on too many tourists and Manhattanites along the way.

            The car pulled up on time as I knew it would, and I felt my way over to it.

            “Hello,” the young driver said as I climbed into the back seat and folded the cane. “How are you today?”

            “Doing fine, gotta say,” I said. “And Yourself?”

            I’d used this car service a couple of times in the past. Enough to get to know a few of the drivers, but didn’t recognize his voice.

            “So where are you headed?”

            I gave him the address. “I’m pretty sure it’s between Broadway and…”

            “Oh, I’ll just put it into the GPS,” he said, and I heard a modulated woman’s voice instructing him to take a left at the next corner and drive to the stoplight two blocks ahead. I figured that would be the extent of the trip’s conversation. It usually was, which is fine by me. I’d encountered a couple of chatty drivers at this place, but they were blessedly rare. I settled back into the seat for what would likely be a forty-five minute trip.

            “So, he said after he’d taken another left at the light. “Are you going to a big party?”

            “No,” I said. “At least I don’t think so. Just going to visit a couple friends I haven’t seen in awhile.”

            “Will there be a turkey?”

            It wasn’t that odd a question, considering it was a holiday. “I’m told there might be, yes,” I admitted, then paused a minute. “And what about you? Any plans?” I could sense I was already falling into the conversational trap.

            “Oh, no,” he said. “I must work. I start at seven-thirty this morning, and work until eight tonight. I will eat later, when I get home.”

            “That’s a rough day.”

            “It is okay. Some people have to work. It is very expensive to live here. There are so many bills and groceries that must be paid for, so one must work a long time to pay for them. That is always the way. Unless you are a doctor . . . or a lawyer . . . or a businessman. I come here not long ago. I am first generation. So it is good to work. It is a good place. A lot of jobs for people. People come from all over the world to live here, because there are jobs. There are a lot of people, but plenty of jobs for them. People are nice. They will help you.” He hesitated a moment. “Not all of them are nice. There are so many people here not all of them can be nice. But many of them are. Chicago is a nice place too. Are you from here?”

            “Not exactly, but I’ve been living here thirty years.”

            “Where were you born?”

            “Well, I grew up in—“

            “No,” he interrupted. “Where were you born?”

            I hadn’t yet decided this was getting a little odd. “I was born in North Dakota, but moved to Wisconsin when I was very young.”

            “Wisconsin?”

            “It’s right above Chicago. Funny thing is, I never wanted to move to New York, but I was married at the time, and my wife was going to school here, so there you go. So where are you from?” I asked. I’d been having a time trying to place the accent.

            “I’m from Europe.”

            Well, that didn’t help much, but I said nothing. If he wanted to be all cryptic about it, fine.

            “Europe is a very big place,” he finally went on. “With many small countries.”

            That didn’t help much either, but we seemed to be narrowing things down.

            “I’m from Albania,” he confessed at long last. I must admit I never would have guessed it to be an Albanian accent. “I come here at age fourteen. I am thirty-one now. My father has work as a handyman in a building, and my mother cleans offices in a big bank in Manhattan. They are good jobs. Union jobs. I have no union. It is like being a waiter or many other jobs.”

            “So how long have you been driving?”

            I have been with this company only six months, but I have always been driving. Do you like this company?”

            “It’s great,” I told him. “Never had a problem. I’ve dealt with some pretty awful car services in the past.”

            “This one?” There was an edge of panic in his voice, as if he’d missed the first half of my answer, and was suddenly afraid I was going to get him into trouble somehow.

            “Oh, no. The people there have always been very nice. Do they treat you well?”

            “Some of them have been there for ten years. Fifteen years, so I am the new person to them. Very young. The company was started thirty-five years ago and is still run by the same person who started it. Carl. You must know him.”

            “Sure,” I lied.

            “There were two boys in front of your house.” He went on, in a quick change of direction. They were smoking cigarettes.”

            “Those were my neighbors. They live in the basement. I used to live down there, but now my wife and I live on the top floor.”

            “I have lived in basements. They can be good. In summer they stay cool, and in winter they stay warm. Most of the time, anyway. But there is always flooding. Sometimes I come home and there is water to my knees. But it is okay”

            “I sure understand that.”

            “So your wife, is she the same wife?”

            “No, she’s my second wife.”

            “How long have you been married?”

            “Well, we’ve been together for twenty-two years, but only got married four years ago.”

            “How long did your first marriage last?”

            Okay, this was getting a little personal now, but what the hell? “Oh, not long. Two or three years.”

            “That is like me, how long my marriage lasted. I was too young, twenty-one or twenty-two. It is too young. I thought those boys in front of your house—the ones who were smoking cigarettes—might be your children.”

            How the hell old did this guy think I was?

            “Oh, no. They’re just Greeks. Very nice guys.”

            “Greeks?”

            “Yeah.”

            “They are my neighbors. They live right next to me.”

            “Pardon?” I was suddenly wondering if this guy lived in the creepy apartment building on the corner, but hadn’t bothered mentioning it to this point, which would’ve just been weird.

             “In Albania,” he clarified. “Albania is next to Greece.”

            I began racking my brain, trying to recall if there had been any ugly ethnic cleansing involved over the course of the past century, but wasn’t sure. Maybe telling him they were Greeks was the wrong thing to say. Wouldn’t be the first time, I guess.

            “Did you have any children with your first wife?”

            “Thank god no.”

            “Your new wife, does she have children?”

            “No.”

            “So you have no children?”

            “Nope, none at all. So what’s your name?” I asked, trying to get off the “kids” kick.

            “My name is Al,” he said, and I thought if he told me his last name was “Banian” he was gonna get a sock right in the nose.

             “ . . . Like Al Bundy,” he went on. “Do you know Married With Children?”

            “Sure,” I said, wondering if that was still the number one show in Albania. I somehow wouldn’t be surprised.

            “What is yours?”

            “Jim.”

            “I have an uncle named Jim. We call him Uncle Jimmy.”

            Up ahead somewhere I heard a police siren snap on, then abruptly snap off again, then snap on once more. I was starting to wonder where we were at this point, but Al answered it for me.

            “Look at all of these people on the bridge!,” he said. “So many of them! Why are there so many of them?”

            “What, they’re walking?”

            “Yes! They are just walking on the bridge.  They do not have work today, so this is what they do. But it is so cold! Why do they do this? And there is a policeman. He seems angry. He turns on his siren, then he turns it off again and gets out of his car and yells and waves his arms. Then he turns on the siren again. I think he is hungry, Jimmy. He just wants to eat. I think his wife just called him on the phone and said the turkey is ready and he’s hungry and wants to go home and eat, but he is stuck on the bridge with all these people so he turns on his siren and yells. We are passing him now.”

            A few minutes passed, and I figured it was as good a time as any to ask Al a little favor.

            “Say, I was wondering,” I ventured. “When we get to the address, might you be able to help me find the door? It’s kind of tricky over there.”

            Al paused before answering. “Oh, Jimmy,” he said, and I could hear the panic creeping back into his voice. “Manhattan is a very bad place. And Broome Street is the worst place in all of Manhattan. There is much traffic there. If I leave my car, people will get angry and yell and honk their horns and give me a ticket for stopping on Broome Street with all the traffic. It is very bad.”

            “Oh, that’s okay,” I said, trying to calm him down. “I’ll just take care of it. There’ll be plenty of people on the sidewalk. I’m sure someone will help me.”

            “Oh, no, no, no, Jimmy—we will work it out somehow. We’ll find a way.”

            “It’s really okay. It’ll be fine. I don’t want you getting a ticket.”

            “No, no, no Jimmy, it will be okay. We will find a way, somehow.” He was quiet for a moment. “We are passing the courthouses now. Many, many courthouses. The most important ones in Manhattan. Many important things happen there. There are people going inside. I guess some people need to work in courthouses, even today.”

            A few blocks later he yelped again. “Look at Canal Street! No car is moving. So many cars and they are going nowhere and people are angry wondering why they are going nowhere. Oh, look—and the police are arresting a man. They are arresting him right now. That is why no cars can move. I wonder why they are arresting him? They are arresting him right there. But now everything is stopped. There is no place to go. We are just  four blocks away, but it will take us fourteen minutes to get there.”

            “That’s okay.”

            We inched ahead for the next block. Suddenly he said, “The man they have arrested is right next to your window.”

            “What?” I expected to hear a frantic knocking on the glass and tugging at the door handle.

            “In the police car,” he clarified. “It is next to us, and he is right there in the back seat.”

            “Oh. You had me worried there for a second.”

            “Oh, he just raised his hands. He is not handcuffed. They did not arrest him. I wonder what he is doing there? But look—he is in the car with two very pretty police girls!”

            “Police girls? Really? I’ll be.”

            As we at last drew closer to Broome, he asked, “What kind of building is it?”

            “What?”

            “Where your friends live. What kind of building?”

            “Oh. I don’t know, exactly. Just a building.”

            “But they are all stores here. Do you know what kind of store is on the street?”

            “I don’t remember any store. I know it used to be a factory of some sort. Now it’s just a building with apartments.”

            “But these are all stores—oh, wait. There it is. It looks like it used to be a factory, but is now just a building.”

            “Well then that must be it. If you just want to let me out here, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

            “Oh, no, no, no, Jimmy. We will make this work. Come on!”

            He stopped the car, threw open his door, jumped out, yanked my door open and took my hand. “Come on! The door is right here!”

            He left his car behind, doors open, and hustled me across the narrow sidewalk to the door. “Here is door. Here, feel.” He took my hand and placed it on the painted metal. “What is number?” He asked.

            “Pardon?”

            “Apartment number! What is it?”

            “I told him, and he hit the proper buzzer for me. Then I paid him, shook his hand, and let him go. He ran back to the idling car, and I heard both doors slam.

            For all the fretting, it was a moot point, as no one had yelled or honked or given him a ticket. In fact the traffic along Broome hadn’t moved an inch since he stopped. He was right about that street though, I’ll give him that. Bad news.

 

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