How Many Dots Can You Afford to Spare?

by Jim Knipfel

Perched up on the top floor of this building ten hours a day, trapped in my little box like some broken-winged bird or failed king, I'm forced, on occasion, to look out the two tall, arched windows next to me. They stare westwards, down upon one of Manhattan's busier intersections where, surprisingly enough, very little ever happens beyond the ceaseless squealing and honking and grinding. I'm high enough that I can watch the dead, green clouds boil over Jersey, should I choose to. But down in the intersection, cars come and go, then more of the same cars come and go again. Despite the rare fender-bender, the traffic ticks away the hours, meaning nothing in the end.

Most everyone--strangers, at least--who stumble into the office searching for something, find themselves drawn to these windows.

"Great view," a lot of them mutter.

"That's some view!" others say, as they stand next to my box, my primitive command center, staring out over that same intersection and those same green Jersey clouds.

"Uh-huh," I say if I'm feeling charitable. I'm usually not feeling charitable, so I say nothing at all.

Much of the time, my eyes slip down past the automobiles and stare at the smaller things. I guess those would be the "people." Except that it's not people I see moving warily, stridently, up and down the sidewalks, crossing the streets, dodging the cars--they're just dots, they're just nameless, faceless spermatozoa wriggling (warily, stridently) under the lens of a microscope. Which always brings to mind the Ferris Wheel scene from The Third Man:

"Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?" Orson Welles asks a befuddled Joseph Cotten. "If I said you can have 20,000 pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money--or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?"

I spend much of my time at work calculating.

Now, back in Brooklyn, I can sit, my ass wedged uncomfortably on the corner of a milk crate full of books, and stare out my window for hours. There, I look down on another intersection, one most people would consider "quiet," and never cease to be entertained. I don't have endless streams of traffic or noxious clouds rolling low over a noxious state, but unlike my view at work, I'm looking down on a real action spot.

Not a week goes by that there's not some major car accident at that intersection (no stoplights, huge blind spot). When I was unemployed and spent my days alone there, drinking, thinking and staring, I knew I could simply count the hours until the next screech of tires and the subsequent explosions of metal and glass. And then the fistfights. We're in Brooklyn, mind you--not too many sophisticates to worry about, willing to talk out their differences in a calm and civilized manner--so even the slightest fender-bender will result in at least a brief flurry of fists and a longer exchange of cracked obscenity. This is entertainment at it's cheapest, and there's nothing wrong with that.

The dealers and the whores who controlled all four corners of that intersection when I first moved in have moved on--forced to move on, actually, when the yuppie bar and it's little terrace opened a couple years back. That's too bad. The dealers and the whores were more interesting to watch and had interesting things to say than some damn account executives who can't handle their stout, stumbling down my block and screaming about baseball and television shows at 3 in the a.m. Still, you take what you can get.

Sitting outside on the stoop with my beer or my bottle of wine and my smokes on a warm, weekend evening, I'm never short for cheap amusements. The neighbors don't stop to chat with me, the way they do with everyone else up and down the street, and that's fine. That's the way I prefer it. In fact, if folks did stop to chat with me, I wouldn't go out there. The fact that I seem invisible to all of them is my only invitation out onto the stoop. Events melt one into the other out there. The cheap, drunken laughter, the occasional shrieks from some domestic dispute down the block, the dying, golden rays of sunset reflecting hard and sharp off the top windows of the building across the street, the kids on their rollerblades slamming into the parked cars, the unexpected neighborly dogfights. It's a slow beat that churns along quietly most of the time, thick liquid time, except for those moments when cars fulfill their destiny in explosions of metal and glass and words that seem to perk everyone up.

It's not a real classy block I live on--to get classy, you have to go a few long blocks east, towards the park. By the same token, go two blocks west, and you're trodding on the hallowed ground of Camp Desolation (or so I call it), where the few hollow-eyed inhabitants--the former denizens of the long-mourned Greatest Bar in the World, Luisi's Tavern--spend their days hidden away in the darkness, and their nights smoking chemistry experiments and killing.

Where I am, I look at it as the balancing point between the brownstones full of Famous People and everything that the Famous People fear most, deep in their guts. It's a good place to be, this balancing point.

Growing up, my whole town was a balancing point. That little world was always clean and orderly, with every yard neatly demarcated and neatly trimmed (with the exception of the Simmons' place up the street--but the folks in my neighborhood got the City to take care of that little problem), each square of yard a different, but equally brilliant, eye-popping shade of green. Folks kept their private lives private. The houses were far enough apart that domestic squabbles stayed indoors. You only knew if the fellow next door was a drunk if he showed up at your front door by accident (like Mr. Frasier did several times a week. I liked Mr. Frasier. He was the best. Delivered vending machines for a living, and I never once, in all my years there, saw him sober). If anything truly savage was going on there--with the exception of all the hunks of flesh that every local bully removed from me at some point--I never knew about it, and no one ever talked about it. It was all just smiles, smiles, smiles.

But where I am in Brooklyn, everything is public, everything is honest, everything is now.

Out there on the stoop, where the perch is, well, obviously, much closer to the ground than my box at work, I can see all the three-fifth faces, and hear all the empty voices. These people--from the folks who grind open the metal gate in front of the laundromat at 7 a.m. sharp and grind it shut again at 9, to the dealer who drives the ice cream truck around and around the block, churning out the endless tinkle-tinkle of a roached "Turkey in the Straw," to the couple with the incontinent German Shepherd a few doors down--they all even have something akin to a personality. But still that scene from The Third Man comes to mind, and still I'd like to make all those faces and personalities stop moving and disappear. Especially that dog.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Artwork copyright Bob Hires. All rights reserved.

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