Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
My mind was elsewhere. It shouldn't have been. I should've been paying attention to what was going on around me, but instead I was thinking about Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals for some godforsaken reason, as well as an old Robert Klein stand-up routine I saw on TV in 1976 ("Gimme that chicken, porcupine!"). The two, so far as I was aware, were not connected in any way. In short, my mind was everywhere except where it should've been.
I wasn't using the cane, either, which only multiplied the stupidity. It was dark out. The sun hadn't fully risen yet, and it was raining. I was heading west on 23rd St., and I should've had the damn cane out, but was too busy pondering Robert Klein's take on Disney films to bother with it. I just walked on, my head down, my coat open to the drizzle, figuring my feet would know well enough where to take me. My shirt was growing damp.
Up ahead, I heard some people yelling. I thought little of it, assuming they were just the voices of the garbage men. There was a garbage truck crawling westward along the curb parallel to me, and I just put the two together. Garbage men were always yelling at each other.
Two silhouettes were moving toward me through the gloom from the far end of a long scaffolding. I was concentrating on those shapes, trying to figure out the best way to avoid them, when I heard wet footsteps approaching fast from behind me. Then there was a man next to me, an umbrella in his hand. My step faltered for just a moment.
"Oh," he said. "I'm sorry." Then he turned and ran back to where he'd started.
I had no idea what he might be sorry about. He hadn't run into me or grabbed me or anything. Who knows. He barely got my attention at all. I squinted at the pair of silhouettes in front of me, then stepped to the side and let them pass.
There sure was a lot of foot traffic out there for 6:15 in the morning. And active, too, for such a dreary, sloppy day. People were coming and going in every direction. I continued to pick my way past the deli and the newsstand and the subway stop, thinking about this and that, still pretty dreary myself and letting the mind drift where it would.
"Just give him the money!" a man behind me screamed. "The money! Just give him the fucking money!" I heard the sound of several people running.
Looking back to see what was happening a few yards behind me would've been absolutely pointless. Instead, I turned the corner onto 7th Ave., put my head back down, and kept walking. It was all back there now.
I think I just walked through a crime-in-progress, I thought.
It's entirely possible that it wasn't a crime at all—it might have been a simple business transaction, or some garbage men settling a bet on a Mets game, but I preferred to think it was some sort of crime, and that gunfire had erupted the moment I was out of earshot.
Then I began to wonder how many times I've stumbled through crimes-in-progress without realizing it. It wouldn't surprise me much if I had.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about this thing he'd written. It involved a kid who becomes obsessed with crime at a very early age. Then, as he grows older, he finds himself surrounded by crimes. It's not that he becomes a criminal himself, but crime and criminals begin orbiting around him, drawing closer and more personal with each passing year.
It was an idea which, as I explained to him, struck real close to home with me. I'd been obsessed with crime as a kid myself (still am, I guess). But as I grew older, real, tangible crimes started intersecting my life in odd ways.
I grew up 40 miles from where Ed Gein lived. I tutored a con in German when I was in high school, not knowing he only wanted to learn German to impress his Aryan Brotherhood pals. A friend I'd had since kindergarten was blown away by his own brother. Another friend's TV started talking to him and before you knew it 6 people in a downtown office had been gunned down. I learned that my mom crossed paths with Charley Starkweather. A guy named Jessie Lee Wise wanted me to help him get his music career off the ground—but the fact that he was on death row in Missouri made that a little complicated. I spoke with him 20 minutes before he got the needle. He'd had shrimp for dinner.
It goes on and on. There was my own life of fairly petty crime, and all the criminals of one form or another—mostly low-rent—who I'd become friendly with.
I don't say any of this with pride—it's just the way things happened. I've always found crime to be interesting. How's the saying go? A left-handed form of human endeavor?
Yes, well, that's why it wouldn't have surprised me at all to learn that I had, in fact, walked through a crime-in-progress on 23rd St. that morning. I've walked into construction sites, movie shoots—even fires—without being aware of it. After all, for the most part, crimes are much quieter than people realize. To walk into a crime would've been no big deal. Less, even. Just something else to add to the list.