The nights at the deli were hot and everyone was crazy. I worked late shift, moving cases of beer from the back room to the cooler and sweeping the cigarette butts from the sidewalk cracks. Down the street Art and Tony were drunk and throwing bricks from the abandoned lot at each other. People walked by as if nothing were happening. I finished my smoke and went back inside.
"What's all the screaming?" asked Cheeseburger Jack.
"The drunks at the corner are throwing bricks at each other."
"Oh," said Jack. Jack was a regular customer. He called every night at eleven and ordered three cheeseburgers to go. He was short but tough, with a full head of wavy white hair and wore barbershop shirts with four pockets. Nobody knew where he lived or what he did for money. But he sure loved his burgers.
When I went back outside to hose off the sidewalk, Tony had taken a brick to the forehead and was staggering around, moaning like Frankenstein. He had his palm to the wound, but the blood oozed out like chocolate syrup between his fingers and dripped onto the pavement.
"Jeezus," I said, "I just hosed that down." He staggered off toward the hospital. It was only three blocks away. I was pretty sure he'd make it.
§ § §
Junky Mike worked the deli on night shift. He looked like a guy who'd failed a porn audition: curly dark hair and a mustache. He had a wife and three kids who all lived in a shelter somewhere. The boss had taken Mike in as he had the rest of us, because we needed the work. But we got paid in cash, and Mike put all his earnings in his arm.
For a junky, Mike seemed fairly level, and we liked him because he gave us free food. I figured he probably stole a fair amount from the deli to feed his family, but who coulud blame him. But when his addiction showed through, it was as a sort of numbness. When Mike was high you could tell because he didn't seem to understand things like jokes or directions. Once, on my day off, I got a call at my girlfriend's place where I was staying at the time. They needed me to come down to the deli. Mike had been taken to the hospital. "O.D.?" I asked. "No," said Harold, the shift manager, "he burned himself." So I sobered up as best I could and got down there. Harold was a cool guy, tall, half Hawaiian and half black. He was a fair boss and everyone liked him. When I arrived I was told what happened. It seems Mike was high and was trying to swap out the fryer grease. The procedure involved draining the old hot grease into a square plastic tub and sealing it. We'd all been told to press only on the rim of the containter when sealing it, but Mike had pushed on the center and the top had flipped sideways, plunging his fist into the hot oil. Being high, Mike didn't feel it immediately, and by the time he pulled his hand out, it was deep-fried. "Jeezus fuck," I said, "will he be ok?" Harold didn't know, just that they needed an extra man on the shift.
A few days later, I came in to buy some cold cuts and Mike was behind the counter. His left hand was wrapped in a huge gauze mitten., giving his arm the look of a Q-tip. "Looks like it hurts," I said, "you gonna be alright?" Mike smied, "Yeh sure, it's nothing." Then he wrapped my order and I left. When I got home I saw he'd let me have an extra quarter-pound of turkey, free.
§ § §
Uncle Jim was the night shift concierge at the Chancellor, a one-time ritzy hotel that had slouched to the rank of mediocre apartment building. Jim was in his late fifties and had a large head that seemed to be made entirely of papier maché. He spoke slowly, and when he walked he seemed always to be stepping over something. Jim came in before his shift every night and ordered a platter. Sometimes he took a flask from his coat and poured a modest shot into his coffee. Jim was one of those people who's uniquely suited to night work. I never saw him in daylight. Then again, few ever saw me in daylight either. When my shift ended at 1:00 a.m., I took my pay and went over to Dirty Frank's to catch last call. Jim always had a good story to tell. Years on the night shift had given him lots of material. The saddest ones always concerned the jumpers. The neighborhood seemed to have more than its share. For Jim, calling ambulances was just a part of a night's work. Though, in fairness, he didn't have to hose off the sidewalk. After I quit the deli job, I heard that Jim had been replaced by an electronic security system. Didn't seem right. Back then, not much did.
§ § §
It was late and I'd been drinking. Artie was panhandling in front of the 7-11. He was broke and I was close. "Hey," he said, "got your harmonica on you?" I told him I did. "Stand here and play, maybe we'll make some tips." I was almost never too drunk to play, unless I was unconscious. So I laid down some basic blues riffs. Three-chord stuff. One four five. It was hot and a Friday. People strolled up and down the street. Artie stuck his cap out at them. Most veered away but a few dropped some coins into the hat. After a few minutes, I took a break. "How much we got?" I asked. Art twirled a finger through the coins. "Not enough for a forty." So I played some more. A couple approached. I recognized the woman from an old job I'd had. We'd both been phone sales reps at a publishing company. The difference was that she could sell. I left the company owing them money. Her name was Michelle. She was tall, very blonde, Southern, and proper. She and her date were still wearing office clothes. "Hey, Michelle," I said, "how's it going?" She gave me a look that made it clear she had no idea who I was. Then, in a flash of a second, her bewilderment turned to disgust. Her date looked at her. "You KNOW that guy?" he said. She mumbled something I couldn't hear, and the two quickened their pace. I knew I was supposed to feel shame, to feel poor and dirty and unworthy. But I didn't. "You know her?" asked Artie. "Yeh," I said, "before my untimely death." I went back to playing, Artie to holding out his hat. We finally got enough for a forty of Mickey's. To us, it tasted like champagne.