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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Bad Luck Corner

Outside my apartment window, down on the sidewalk, perched on the corner of the laundromat, is the Bad News Phone. It took me awhile after moving in to realize what it was, exactly. There were phones on every corner of the intersection, and the folks who chose to use any of the other three seemed to do so with ease. Pick up the phone, make your happy phone call, continue on with your business. But not the Bad News Phone. Every time anyone picked it up and dialed--man or woman, young or old--they ended up either receiving, delivering, or causing bad news. The air around that corner is filled sporadically with screams and sobs.

"You treat me with respect, you hear me?" a man bellowed into the phone one afternoon a few weeks ago. " the same...FUCKING!"

Most of them scream, some sob quietly, a few crumble and promise that the money will be there first thing in the morning. It's become a kind of game for me as I lie there in bed listening. I try to guess the details of the crisis at hand before the person on the phone makes it obvious. Or if the conversation sounds like it's going okay, I try to guess how long it will be before something overloads and cracks. It's never very long.

I don't know what it is about that corner. The dealers all went away when the bodega across the street shut down. It was a convenient operation--those in need would pop inside the bodega for a sixer or a can of corn, then stop by the corner to get whatever else they wanted. When that bodega closed down, the dealers went back to Fifth Ave. The hookers left a few months before the bodega closed. Still, there's some kind of strange force at work there, some resonant magnetism that seems to pull bad ideas out of people's heads once night falls. During the day, the corner's a pleasant one, full of smiling families and young couples. Everything's nice. People walk their sparkling healthy pets and push their strollers around. People stay away from that phone.

But once night falls--and this certainly is no surprise--the fauna of the region changes. I don't think it has anything to do with that dreadful bar, either. They close pretty early, and their crowd is never that rowdy. No, the danger here arises quietly and, in most cases, individually. People drag their crippled pets out to crap at night, too embarrassed to be seen with them in the daytime. It's silent out there, but the silence is an uncomfortable one. You know that at any minute, someone could decide to make a call and pick up the Bad News Phone by accident.

It's not just the phone, either. Last night was a good example of what can go on. At 9:30, I heard the Ranter making his way down the sidewalk. He's sort of like a town crier, I guess. One night a week, always about 9:30 or 10, he starts making the rounds. You first hear his muffled, grumbly shouts from a distance when he turns the corner a block away. As he gets closer, you finally begin to catch what he's saying. It's always roughly the same thing:

"...nigger fucked my sister...Fuck your mother!...Fuck your mother!...Let a nigger fuck your mother...I'll fuck your sister...Motherfucker...I don't care...I don't fuckin' care...I'd rather fuck a dog than fuck a nigger...May a dog fuck your mother and your sister...Motherfucker..."

When he passes beneath my window, the pitch drops and his voice slowly fades. Five or ten minutes later, he's back again. Same rant still going on, same Doppler shift. He usually circles the block three times before moving on, having made his point.

I don't know what happens to him the rest of the week. I've never seen him, couldn't tell you anything more about him. Don't know what he looks like or how old he is, whether he's drunk or crazy or just a man of strong convictions. He never does fail to entertain, though. If there's a TV or a radio on, I always kill the sound until he's made his final pass.

I'm always amazed that none of my quiet, respectable, comfortable, well-meaning neighbors who live up and down the street shoosh him or throw eggs. I've seen them throw eggs before. They don't at this guy, though. Maybe they're afraid.

Long after he passed, I was awakened by two new voices outside my window. I guess it was about three. I have no idea what time it was, but three seems as good a guess as any. I know I had to go to the bathroom, and I usually have to go to the bathroom about three. People always seem to stop and talk just below my window. This time it was two gentlemen, they sounded to be in their mid-30s maybe, and they were making plans.

Weird thing is, they were talking much too loudly to really be making the kind of plans they seemed to be making. They didn't sound drunk, either. They sounded perfectly sober. And if you're sober (unless you're a big dummy), you simply don't plan a murder in loud voices on the street under someone's open window. You just don't do that. Murders should be planned at a back table in a crowded bar, over the phone, or via e-mail.

It seems that the two of them--old friends they were--had just discovered that they were both sleeping with the same woman and had been for some time. She lived in Queens. With this revelation, they figured there was only one thing to do--namely, kill her--not only for betraying them, but for making such chumps out of both of them. Strange thing is, they didn't seem all that upset about it. They weren't angry at each other, as one might almost expect. That wasn't the case at all.

"Man," one of them said, "we both can't be doin' the same woman. We can't be."

"But we is," his partner said. "Don'cha get it? We have been."

One of them had a car, and the other one had a gun, or so they said. The plan, it sounded like, was that they were going to drive up to this woman's place in Queens right then and there. That very night. I guess they both had keys to her house. The one with the gun would go inside and shoot her, and the other one would wait outside and drive getaway.

As I lay there listening to them, still needing to piss, admittedly groggy and sleepy, I pondered briefly the notion of calling somebody to let them know what was going on. But who was I going to call? The police? 911? Sure, that'd be a great:

"Hi, uh...I want to report that two men right outside my window are plotting to kill someone!"

"Really. Oh, please, tell me more."

Or even better yet:

"This is an emergency! A woman in Queens is about to be murdered!"

"What's her name?"

"Well, I don't exactly know, uhh..."

"Do you have an address where this woman lives?"

"No, I'm afraid I don't exactly have that, either."

"Well, who's going to kill her?"

"It's these two guys who were talking on the sidewalk."

"Where are you calling from?"

"Umm, Brooklyn?"

Somehow, I knew that if I tried that, I'd end up being arrested.

Eventually, their plans finalized, these two walked down the street and out of earshot, and I fell back asleep. Maybe it was performance art. (Do people still do performance art?) Maybe they were just going to different neighborhoods in the city, plotting murders under open windows to see if anyone would do anything.

I scoured the Post the next morning, but found nothing. Nothing at all. Maybe they just hadn't found the body yet.

I've often wondered exactly what it was about this corner, and why such occurrences seemed to be popping up more frequently lately. I finally have an absolutely unprovable theory.

This corner--as I've written about a few times in the past--used to be host to at least one major car accident every week. Whether I was witness to it in some way or not, it was always clear when something had happened--the broken glass and skid marks, the dented trees, the mangled bikes. And when an accident did happen, someone always ran over to the Bad News Phone to call it in to EMS.

Well, a few months ago, one of those neighborhood activist--types, after a decade of nagging, finally convinced the city council (or the streets department or whoever does such things) to put a stoplight up. Since the stoplights went up, I haven't seen evidence of a single major accident.

Kind of a pisser, actually, given that those car accidents were one of my main sources of entertainment while I was unemployed.

Maybe there's been such a marked increase in Bad News around that corner simply because somebody, something, had to fill that void that was left when they took all the car accidents away.

Just a theory.

Granted, dealing with neighborhood ranters and spooky phones and what--not really isn't much of anything compared to, say, nightly gunfire, or dealers lined up down the street or the constant threat of assault every time you step outside your door. It's nothing at all. But at least it's something.