Even though I convinced myself I’d be fine if I had to spend the night on the street, it was a relief when I found a cheap room in a motel near the main square.
In the room, I laid down on the tough springy bed in the glow of YouTube Seinfeld clips I had stored on my iPhone before I left. The clips were from the episode The Comeback, where George Costanza goes to outrageous lengths to get back at a fellow employee who’d insulted him. After coming up with his retort much later, George flies all the way out to Akron, Ohio to deliver it – only to be stifled once more by the quicker witted employee.
I watched and re-watched this clip, laughing at first, but soon felt a creeping sadness at the reality of it.
“The French have a term for this condition,” Haidar had told me one night, back in Paris, while crouched on the ground behind his bicycle.
“What condition? I don’t have a condition.”
“L’espirit d’escalier,” he said.
“The wit of the staircase?” I asked, visibly annoyed.
“Yes, or staircase wit.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s where a person is only able to come up with a witty remark, decision, or action after it’s way too late and the moment has passed.”
“What does this have to do with anything, Haidar?”
”A person who undergoes this process is a victim of a subconscious act of self-sabotage; the brain working to block out any potential response to a situation until it’s safe, and after-the-fact.”
I nodded, listening.
“This leaves a person in a state of constant anxiety.”
I missed Haidar. I missed his calm pragmatism. I missed sleeping on his shoulder at night.
I remembered what he’d said, before walking out of the bedroom.
“People react to tragedy in absurd ways,” he said. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“You’re not going to lose me,” I said.
I fell asleep in the motel that night with damp cheeks, to the cool bass pops and scat of the Seinfeld theme, unsure of so much in my life at that moment.
I continued my search early the next morning, loitering in textile factory parking lots, and confronting random people with the Rabinowitz name to no avail.
I fantasized about going door to door until I found a Rabinowitz, but I was scared to actually go through with it.
I needed a new approach.
I walked over to the local public library to track down any record of the family. Yet, once inside, my rejuvenated energy was soon gone after a frustrating conversation with a curt, disengaged, librarian as we both struggled to understand one another.
I sat on the library stairs, and leaned forward on my knees. I felt disappointed and tired. A half eaten street-cart kielbasa sat on a paper plate beside me, my lips still tingling from the viscid cooking oil.
I knew Haidar had been right all along. How naïve was I. I felt homesick and inadequate. I felt resentment and anger.
And it came to me. Alton’s death; the story I’d been trying to repress for a month. That fucking idiot. How could he have been so selfish?
The official pronouncement had been drowning in the East River, but that wasn’t the entire truth. During a week long drug fueled bender, Alton and some buddies holed themselves up in a South Williamsburg hostel collecting dumpster items to build some sort of demented “submarine” with the goal of propelling themselves under the half mile width of the river to Manhattan. There was no point, they just wanted to be able to say they had done it. It’s so stupid, and meaningless, and absurd. Needless to say, their ingenious plan backfired. Three days later, Alton’s body was fished out of that stupid toxic fucking river. It was all over the New York news apparently.
When I’d broken up with him before coming to study abroad in Paris, I still loved him. I don’t think he believed that I did, but it was true. I was younger then and didn’t know what I wanted. Plus, I was being influenced by the grand dreams of movies and television, which is a dangerous thing to do if you want to maintain a relationship. I knew I didn’t want to be in a relationship while studying abroad. I was worried he’d hold me back.
I broke it off the night before I got on the plane.
I only talked to him once after that. He’d called me late one night last winter from a pay-phone somewhere crying unintelligibly about the jacket and Karol. I shouldn’t have felt guilty about Alton’s death. I didn’t owe him anything. But I did.
I thought back to Brooklyn. I saw myself seated at my desk, in my bedroom, younger – with a scrunchie holding back my hair. I had a stack of encyclopedias next to me, and scribbled away at a notebook for English class. I finished writing, and flipped back several pages. I thought to myself for a second, chewed on my eraser, and titled the story: The Birdseed Man.
“You lied to me,” Alton had said over the phone that night. I could tell he was crying. I could hear him wiping the snot out from under his nose.
“That’s not true,” I said. “Some of it is true. The name’s are mostly true. The family really came from Żyrardów.”
“Yeah, but –”
“You played it all off as true. I believed you. I believed in a fantasy.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “My mother took care of his wife at the nursing home.”
“You used him.”
“No. But I took snippets from the stories I heard from her, and embellished the rest. I’m really sorry.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Can’t do what?”
“Karol is a real person. I know him now. You can’t just make up stories for people you don’t know.”
“I was fifteen years old, Alton. We were just kids. I had a big imagination. I didn’t know you’d take it so seriously.”
“I don’t know what to believe any more.”
“Stop being so melodramatic. You need to grow up.”
“How can you say that?”
“You ran away. You left everything behind for some fantasy.”
“That’s so far from true.”
“Growing up isn’t running away from your problems. It isn’t leaving everything behind.”
“So that’s what this is about.”
“I didn’t have a place in your fantasy life so you ditched me.
They remained silent on the line.
“I want to see you,” he said.
“I’m not planning on going back anytime soon. I live here now.”
“No, I want to come to France. I want to see you.”
“That’s not a good idea.”
“Please, Lydia. I need to get away from here. I’m not –”
“You’re not what?”
“I’m not well. I’m not doing well. I don’t feel good. About myself. I need to come see you.”
“How will seeing me change things?”
“I don’t know, but please.”
“Will you listen to me? I said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Is France near Poland?”
“No, it’s not. Why?”
“Please. We can go to Poland together.”
“Why would we go to Poland together? What are you talking about?”
“I need to get to Żyrardów.”
“I have the jacket.”
“You have it?”
“Yes, I have the birdseed jacket.”
“How did you get it?”
“Please let me come see you.”
“No, Alton. Okay? I said no. Enough already.”
“Fuck you, Lydia,” he said.
He hung up. It was the last I ever spoke to him.
I cried my goddamn eyes out on those library steps, trying to compose myself, trying to think of what in the hell my next move would be.
I was about to give up, and fell into a swift panic of self-doubt. What was I even doing here? I knew I had to leave that night, if I wanted any chance of retaining my job at the bookstore.
Haidar hadn’t texted me since mid-day last night. The factories would be letting out soon.
I mustered up the strength to try my luck once more.
Outside a weathered red brick factory, I encountered a pudgy woman wearing a hair-net who happened to be fluent in English. She introduced herself as Lusia. I explained to her the reason for my trip and she claimed to know of a man by the surname of Rabinowitz who worked in the factory. She she’d bring him out to me when the whistle blew.
I chain-smoked about a dozen Sobieski Premiums until my throat burned. Two hours went by, before I heard the whistle.
I watched close by, as the workers began spilling out of the factory, not unlike the Lumière film of a similar situation. Sure enough however, the hair net woman returned with an attentive, stocky man. She introduced him as Adam Rabinowitz. We spoke briefly, his English stable enough to get by, and to my sudden disappointment he claimed to know nobody in his family named Józef or Karol.
I almost gave him the jacket then, to clear my mind of it, but somehow it didn’t feel right. After thanking him, he and the hair net lady walked off together toward the parking lot.
Adam turned and hustled back over to me. He’d misunderstood my question, and repeated an apology several times, gingerly patting the tips of his spiky gelled hair as he spoke with all the tenderness of a cacti gardener.
He agreed to help.
Adam, and Lusia – to translate between us – took a ride in Adam’s truck out beyond the fringe of the city. Wrapped tight with neurotic energy, like a young Polish George Costanza, Adam flipped through the radio until I heard the strained melody of a familiar song. I shot my hand forward, gesturing him to stay on the station. Reworked in a sort of Polish teeny-pop song, the melody was unmistakably I Put a Spell on You.
The three of us listened, bobbing our heads as we zipped along a bumpy cobblestone road. The sides of the road edged with faded cinnamon brick apartment blocks patterned with ornate lampposts. Each of which appeared to switch on, so it seemed, right as we passed by.
We arrived at a small country house about a half hour later. It was now dusk. A small terrier nipped at my heels as we were ushered in through a tattered screen door by a wispy, and puzzled, old woman who Adam introduced simply as “L.” She grabbed onto my arm with her feeble, but assured grip, and lowered me down for a convivial kiss on the cheek. She couldn’t have been more than five feet and her quiet, dimly lit home smelled like a coffee filter, with chipped sea-foam walls in the crackling glow of the fireplace. A sudden, nearly perverse excitement shuddered through me as I looked around the home. My eyes drifting until centering on a bookshelf with a propped dog-eared photograph of a somber young man; Karol.
We took our seats. Our conversation began as a translational game of telephone. L spoke in her balsa frail whisper to Adam, who turned to Lusia, who finally relayed the message to me.
I learned that L had been in casual correspondence with her cousin Karol who lived in Brooklyn. I couldn’t believe I was actually here with Karol’s younger cousin. We sipped a strong rum tea and let the gentle hours of the country blanket the small yard, the woods, the history all around us. The rustle of the leaves quietly combating the interminable rumbles from Żyrardów.
It was around this time I mentioned the name Alton. Once the message reached L, she vaulted up suddenly on her cane, and shuffled over to a small wooden cupboard near the fireplace. She scuffled through a series of envelopes until she found what she was looking for and walked it back over to me.
My lower lip began trembling even before I saw the picture. It took a push of strength to fight off the tears when I finally saw it. The picture showed an early twenty-something Alton with his arm around elderly Karol on the front steps of his Greenpoint walk-up. Alton’s eyes were sunken seashells. He looked beat-down and strung-out. They were both smiling.
L explained that Alton had befriended Karol and would spend afternoons reading to him, and helping him around the apartment. I began to cry. L placed her hand over mine. Her hand felt like a leaf resting on mine, diaphanous and veiny. She looked me in the eyes, and told me that when Karol got sick, Alton arrived at his home every Sunday morning, and would walk out into the park with the jacket.”
“Even after he passed, he still took the jacket out into the park for the birds,” Lusia translated.
Lusia leaned in to clarify, and I saw L shake her head. It was an extraordinary pause for all of us, like the silence – I could only assume – of a soldier just after hearing the click of a landmine under his step.
We now, collectively, understood each other. Both people involved were gone.
And what I remember most though was the hiss and pop from the fireplace layering over our silence. I knew the real pain of all of this was yet to come, and it would hurt and sustain until I moved on, which I knew I’d have to. What else could be done?
After some meditation, I took a strong swill of rum tea, reached into my backpack, and handed the folded jacket to L.
“I think you should have this,” I said.
I motioned to Adam and Lusia that we should go. L sat there silent holding the jacket in her frail arms.
She spoke. Lusia nodded, and turned to me.
“Can you believe this gold laced trim?” she said.
We left L in her home, to the windless night of the countryside and rode back to Żyrardów in silence, zagging through several backstreets lined with semi-lit smoke stacks towering in the darkness above us. The sharp angles and dark contrasts of the city at night made it seem like we were driving through the set of a German Expressionist film.
As they walked away, Alton looked over his shoulder to catch one last glimpse of the birdseed man, but he was gone.
Adam dropped me off at the bus terminal, thanked me, and he and Lusia skidded off back in the direction of the factory. They very well could have been working the night shift. I didn’t know.
I sat on my backpack against a chilled tile wall, and waited for the bus. I was early, but I didn’t care. I wanted to wait, and wait. The terminal echoed with courteous Polish smooth jazz. I put on my sunglasses even though it was night, and lost myself in the courage to think about everything and nothing all at once.
Postcard: Found at JUNK in Brooklyn, NY in May 2010.