At the edge of my immediate neighborhood lies a hill upon which one district rolls into another. On this hill are ramshackle duplexes of ill repute, washed in dirt and years of decay. A revolving cast of probationers and ex-cons cloud its reputation. Many vagabonds have trudged across this soil. And it is here where I found my one true love.
At first, the beginning of Jack and I looked like an end. We met at the Urn show, through our mutual gal pal Jenny from the Block and her on again/off again husband. Our first dates could have been construed as morbid; we hung out at the grave store and the haunted cemetery. Actually, on our very first date, I had to leave him at the bowling alley. He spent all his money on PBR and had none left for the shoe rental. But Jack eventually became my happy hour roadie who put records back in their sleeves. What’s wrong with having an ex-biker bodyguard for my DJ sets? The Grateful Dead had the Hells Angels, after all. But then one day last summer, I decided to open my heart.
Jack lives in a front, street-facing flophouse on the hill. Although the front window is concealed by a Snoopy-print sheet. The other is cracked and broken, mended by a plastic tarp. His living room is dark but bathed in the red glow of an old turn-of-the-century lamp.
In the back half of the house (which is sectioned down the middle) dwells Donna the Landlady, along with – rumor has it – two generations of cats and dogs. Nearly 20 in all. Although, we never see much of each other. Donna’s life doesn’t follow a normal pattern. She makes appearances like television commercial breaks. Rather, she knocks on Jack’s door with the authority of a Sheriff.
“THUD THUD THUD,” emanates from the hall. “BOOM BOOM BOOM”.
Then we’ll spy her bulky physique wedge itself between the screen door and the dark windy night. I’ll move my car, and she will zip away on some mysterious errand. One night, we swung open the door to head out to see Of Desolation, and right at that very second, Donna swung open her door to the hallway as well. We came face-to-face theatrically, and all that was missing were guns to be drawn and a shootout to take place like the Wild Wild West, or a historical reenactment of one at Fantasy Island.
“Humph,” Donna the Landlady slammed the door, and we heard her bumbling around in there as Jack and I continued towards the Uber idling curbside.
Another night, I opened the flimsy wooden door (which looks, on the outside, like someone attacked it with an axe), into the dark hallway. I spied what I thought was Jack’s little cat, Saltine, sitting on the ground.
“Go on in,” I coaxed. But behind me Jack said – “That’s not Salty.”
Sure enough, I turned and saw Salty – who is missing one front leg, she’s a rescue – perched on the kitchen table!
“Ahhh!” I recoiled back into the kitchen. “Something’s out there!”
Jack stepped in front of me and I pushed him out into the hallway with me stuck to his back like a koala. We peered around the edge of the door.
“It’s a badger,” Jack said, and shut the door behind him, leaving me in the kitchen.
“AHHH!” I ran into the living room and wrapped myself in the Harley Davidson duvet. Jack returned after a minute, saying it must be one of Donna’s cats, but the creature in the hall didn’t have a tail. It turned out to be “Zeke’s mom,” the feline matriarch who lost her tail in a horrible blender accident. We now refer to her as Badger even though I sadly never saw her again.
In the backyard is a government-grade American flagpole with a gold eagle shining on top and jackhammered concrete encircling the base – a found object from Willie, Jack’s “roommate,” although not a roommate in any monetary sense. He showed up shoeless in the snow and high on narcotics two years ago, and never left. He’s been self-quarantining since before it was cool in a room with a padlock and hinge.
“Doesn’t he ever, like, go to the bathroom?” I asked Jack.
There’s also Tim, who rides over on his bike more often than not, sometimes with leftover shrimp moo shu from the takeaway. He lives behind Beaver’s Snow-Plowing with his elderly mother and a brother who frequently calls into radio stations with a monotone voice.
“Kevin was on WECK radio winning $100!” Jack exclaimed one day.
Up in Jack’s room, the walls are emerald green with “Country Girl” painted on in cursive, even though Jack is neither country, nor girl. At first I scoffed and asked “Who’s country girl?” But when you live in a flophouse on a hill, the origins of such epithets are not exactly known.
We are enmeshed in mess and in mess we are one – just me, Jack and Salty the Cat. And Willie too, I guess.
“I’m going to go and buy you a toothbrush to keep here with your name on it,” Jack says.
“A…toothbrush?” I read in Cosmo that 52% of men view keeping a toothbrush at their pad a sign of commitment.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with your breath or anything -”
Willie stomps down the steep stairway sounding like Herman Munster in a black Choppers jacket and Stan Smiths with a Seneca dangling from his mouth and labret piercing glinting amongst a scratchy grey goatee. He mutters something in his mildewy tar-stained voice.
“I’m going next door to Pinky’s,” Willie says and scratches his balls, then treks out the door. Pinky has many male suitors; in fact she told me at the Social Distortion show that she’s descended from Italian nobility. But as for Willie, I think she just feeds him as well as their other friend Donald the Professional Plaintiff. (Donald was once a driver for a Medicaid van service who blasted Dying Fetus to drown out his passengers and later sued the company for personal injury after tripping on his own two feet).
My friend Dan, who provides me with “herbal refreshment” on the regular, warned me about dating a man whose mugshot was once splashed on the pages of the Cheektowaga Chronicle.
“You’re too glamorous for that house,” Dan says as we catch up on his couch. He knows the flophouse scene because his brother once dodged a warrant for violating an order of protection by “living” there at one point. Cheektowaga Police eventually caught up with him; he tried to escape via the second story window. “Run away…”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I say, and look down at Dan’s freshly-shampooed carpet.
“Are you supposed to see him again?” he asks.
“He’s waiting for me now,” I stand to get my shoes. “We just went to Mister Dee’s and saw a guy who looked exactly like David Crosby!”
From the couch, Dan says, “Be careful…” and his voice is laced with an ominous tone.
“Willie met a super rich hottie on the Net!” Jack texts me as I’m mulling things over in the Airport Plaza Save-a-Lot.
“What? He should stick with Jennifer!”
Every now and then, Jack and I will be chilling on the couch, deeply immersed in a Sopranos marathon thanks to the library, when suddenly, Jennifer will stomp through the living room in her signature ski cap and size 11 boots.
“I’m going, I’m going,” she’ll mutter while staring straight ahead, the edges of her mouth sliding into her trademark benzocaine smile.
“Who’s that?” I said. Jack told me all about Jennifer and Willie’s decade-long, on-again, off-again situationship, how Jennifer was thrown from the back of Willie’s Harley, and how they found themselves in hot water when a traffic stop turned into a drug bust, and how Jennifer had twins with another man while they were supposedly together.
On Christmas Eve, we came into the living room after my aunt’s soiree and saw a lump on the couch beneath the afghan knitted by a past resident drug addict named “Bed Bunny.” Jack crouched down to lump-level, and said, “Who are you?”
Jessica arose from her slumber, then went and sat in the dusty recliner across the room, which was once light tan but is clearly now saturated with dirt. Not long after, Willie stomped into the room with a bottle of booze and foil-wrapped food, threw them at Jennifer aggressively, and stomped up the dark stairway to his locked dungeon. She followed him with these “gifts,” and before long, plenty more sketchy folks began to arrive – Tim; Petey, who is one of Pinky’s suiters and a Korea veteran; Donald; and even Skitchy the drug dealer slash reptile enthusiast rolled up in his pickup, with hay bales in the bed of the truck for some reason, and orange overalls on. I thought Skitchy was pretty cute, and given how dark it is in the ‘flop, around my age. (In the light of day it’s actually plain to see that Skitchy is, in fact, 50 years old).
“Donna’s gonna freak with all these cars in the driveway,” I said. But Jack and I are never invited into Willie’s dungeon. I snuck a peek before while exiting the bathroom – it resembles something out of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, with mythical silver and crystal dragon figurines everywhere, and a red couch that wraps around the room. How or why Willie ended up with the “nicest” room, I’m not sure. Then again, why Jack actually pays Donna to live in the ‘flop, I’m not so sure of either.
For now, I guess Jennifer and Willie are “off.” He has fallen in love with his “super rich hottie from the Net.” (Willie also busies himself on the ‘Net selling Pokemon cards, which I guess are fetching some coins with collectors these days).
“He got five teeth pulled just because of her,” Jack continues. I’m not sure which app Willie is on, but this “super rich hottie” apparently owns a junkyard in Chautauqua County. He puts her on a pedestal. Her photo is his phone background. They talk for hours and hours. ( But as of the date of this writing, they haven’t met in person).
Of course, the saga of Willie’s harem wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Tabitha, Willie’s ad hoc boo thang he met downtown at the free clinic/needle depository. Her boyfriend’s currently locked up for petty larceny. He stole a stick of beef jerky; I guess that’s his calling card. Nowadays Tabitha lives a nocturnal lifestyle working as a prostitute. She sometimes rolls up in her teal Cadillac deVille, which might have been left to her in an old sugar daddy’s Will.
But of course, this is the tale of Jack and I, not about all these other people – right?
“Just you, me and Salty, one big happy family,” Jack says and throws one of his burly arms around me, then slurps from his glass of Natural Light. He is wearing a Motorhead tee shirt with his dark hair in a messy ponytail.
Today is an unseasonable 50 degrees, so we are chilling outside at the glass patio table playing Ratt cassettes and starting up a bonfire. The fire pit at Jack’s is the metal drum from inside a dryer. The delivery driver from the pizza joint next door is driving around like a madman and popping wheelies up and down Union, practically, and that’s not even to mention the souped-up BMW with a boat engine zipping by like clockwork.
“Tim’s heading over on his bike!” I’m snapped out of my reverie; sure enough, Tim pedals his mountain bike up the driveway and over to the patio table. He’s rocking a giant gash on the side of his shaved head, with a Band-Aid pathetically placed over it.
“My brother whacked me with a Swiffer!” Tim’s clutching his side as if he’s returned back from war. “Yow-OW!”
Is there a name for the phenomenon of feeling like you’re watching a really funny show, but it is, in fact, your life?
“Do you have a cig?” I ask Tim.
“I had to go and get him some on Doat and Genesee!” Jack interjects.
“What about me, I want cigs from Doat and Genesee!” I say.
Next door, Pinky is saying goodbye to one of her suitors. He is putting some things into a black Volvo with her hand on his lower back. Once he is seated behind the wheel she leans into the front seat to give him a smooch. I lower my all-black rectangular shades, which Jack bought for me at an Allen Street sip n’ shop.
“Did you bring the Temps?” Jack asks.
“Something better -” Tim reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out a packet of “Nine Lives.”
“What is this crap?” Jack is alarmed. “She hates these – everyone knows that!”
Tim and I look at each other. I shrug. “Well jeez man fine, I’ll come back later, there was a coupon for these things -” And Tim heads inside to say hello to Salty, and later emerges with a bag of “Ginger Loon” marshmallows that Jack procured at the Airport Plaza Save-a-Lot. And so the night continues on like a peaceful fog drifting over the harbor.
Tonight, Jack and I are heading to Our Lady Help of Christians BINGO. Pregaming at the corner shanty will begin promptly at 5. There, we have blended into the familiar cast of Bloozies (aka, Bills Floozies) always there on Sundays – “Cuddles,” “The Ambassador,” “Peanut Butter Whiskey,” the girl who always hollers that someone scratched her Cobalt, et al. I’ve got my pack of Parliaments nearby, because Tabitha started bumming me her Newport 100’s. Now I carry my own for when the mood strikes. Bad habits die hard, what can I say?
Well, this is the Wild Wild West. Revealed by The Buffalo News to have the most cancer due to lifestyle in the country. Harlem and Genesee. Skid Row. Drunkenness to rival that of Vegas, hence the name, “Cheektovegas.” Or sometimes, “Cheektowarsaw.” Jack and I are chilling at the corner shanty, me with a bucket of Barefoot chardonnay, and Jack with a bucket of Budweiser, with the Bills after party in full swing. The Ambassador and the girl with the Cobalt’s mom are slow-dancing to Ed Sheeran. Floyd the Cook with the clubfoot is slouched against the end of the bar, and suddenly takes a sideways swing at the bartender’s husband’s head, but misses. The exertion makes him almost fall over sideways.
“Get out!” The fire engine red-haired bartender shouts at Floyd. Her tank top says “Wine-y Bitch.” “Go outside!”
Floyd drags his weary, lopsided, liquored-up body out the door, and stands under the twinkling Christmas lights looped around the patio. There’s a rowdy scene outside, too, with the Gen X’ers throwing a football around and plenty of smokers settling into patio furniture. A curly-haired lady is leaning out the door of her red Mustang, talking on her cell. I see a guy, out of the corner of my eye, walking in the middle of Harlem Road. He’s got a bottle in hand and is weaving in and out of traffic, illuminated by the ceaseless glow of the corner 7-Eleven.
“Oh my God!” I point. “He’s going to die!”
The Ambassador straightens up from leaning against the brick wall.. He’s a freckly Millennial so named because he always shakes people’s hands, especially new patrons he’s never met. He might have a future in politics.
“Oh, he works in the kitchen…” The Ambassador doesn’t seem too concerned. “Must’ve just drank a bottle…”
Jack and I settle into the last patio table next to Peanut Butter Whiskey. He’s a snow-capped gentleman who once bought Jack a shot of peanut butter whiskey. All of a sudden, Jack’s phone rings from an unsaved number – and he actually picks up!
“Oh, uh, what’s going on?”
I lean close to the speaker. It’s clearly a tweaked-out female’s voice on the other end.
“Hey! How rude!” I shriek.
“It’s been a while -” Jack says, clearly uncomfortable.
“Hang up on her!” I turn away and cross my arms. “Weird!” Jack finally hangs up the phone.
“Who was that?” I say. It’s not that I’m a jealous toad, just that since Jack and I are “official” now, I should be able to articulate my curiosities.
“This ex-girlfriend from years ago,” Jack looks totally weirded out. But honestly I get calls/texts/friend requests, etc. from exes all the time, and never respond to them, much less answer a call from a random number on BINGO night. Granted, the girl sounded messed up on drugs. So I’ll let it slide. And who cares? Jack and I will probably win a fortune at BINGO.
Not long afterwards, Jack and I are cozy under fluorescent gymnasium lights surrounded by BINGO dabbers, golden Buddhist cats and a ladybug Beanie Baby belonging to the older ladies at our table. One has a sequined visor on, and many are munching on the 75 cent pizza slices. Up on stage, a dusty gentleman recites the numbers on the Ping Pong balls popping around inside a giant clear globe.
“O – 69,” the guy says deadpan into his microphone, and O- 69 lights up on a scoreboard taking up the whole stage. You would think with all of our boards, we would have won something. But no such luck; Jack and I are still penniless, but slightly tipsy. However, not long after the game begins, Jack’s phone starts to light up again, with that same demented ex’s unsaved number.
“Hello,” I flatly answer Jack’s phone. Because, since we are official and this girl is apparently annoying, she should not be allowed to interrupt BINGO.
“Tell Jack to stop stalking my house,” the girl slurs. I look at Jack and narrow my eyes.
“Look, you’re interrupting BINGO,” I tell her. “GOOD bye.” And I hang up on her.
After BINGO, I drop Jack off at the corner of Union and Genesee, instead of taking him all the way to his house. I’m pissed at him. And why wouldn’t I be? Even if the ex is a drugged-out mess, he needs to block her number – immediately.
Because upon reflection, how could Jack have just been stalking her house, when I’ve literally been at his house all day? He doesn’t have a car, anyway. Tim later confirms this insanity of the ex defense. I guess this “Chrissy” once started a row while volunteering at a Save the Owls tent at the Taste of Buffalo. Well, whatever. I suppose I will let it go. We briefly broke up at BINGO – but I’m not ready to completely run away yet. I’m going to wait and see if Jack proves himself to be trustworthy.
Willie enters the living room in a Sons of Anarchy tee shirt, saying he was chased by wild turkeys down by the churchyard.
“They followed me all the way home, dude,” Willie flops into the dusty recliner, lit cigarette dangling from his mouth, and wraps himself up in the stolen hospital blanket spotted with burn holes.
Tonight, Jack and I are snugged up with Salty to watch The Masked Singer. I head to the fridge, and look inside; despite dropping multiple hints that I need snacks 24/7, there’s nothing inside but pomegranate seeds and coffee creamer.
“Random…what’s with the seeds?”
“They just showed up here,” Jack pours a Hemptails into the red and white plastic wine cup I always use. “Cube?”
“Yes, please,” I say. “Smoot.”
After a few more sips of Hemptails, of course I have to pee. I wander into Jack and Willie’s bathroom. A former inhabitant excavated all the copper pipes and scrapped them for cash, so the water from the sink drips into a bucket underneath. I’m high maintenance when it comes to the bathroom, and so are Jennifer and Tabitha evidently, because we frequently overflow the bucket until water is running all over the floor. But for real, Donna needs to do something about, well, everything here. Sometimes the water even drips down into the mutual hallway.
I use up the last of the toilet paper and hope that there’s more, and turn the doorknob a full 360 degrees. It appears there is also something wrong with the doorknob; I am trapped in the bathroom.
“Help!” I shout. “I’m stuck!”
Willie appears on the other side of the door.
“I’ll get Jack,” I spy his scratchy goatee moving through the crack in the door. “He will know what to do.”
“Grab the butter knife!” Jack yells from out in the hall. “On the shelf to the left!”
Sure enough, there is a butter knife, which I slide down the crack in the door and it eventually trips the lock. The door opens. Jack’s standing in the dark hallway.
“I love you, Jack,” I say.
“I love you, too,” Jack says.
Um, what was that about? I go back to watching The Masked Singer.
There have of course been times when I questioned whether Jack was for real. Like the time he picked all the onions out of Pinky’s potato salad for me, because he knows I do not like onions.
“What’s in it for him?” I narrowed my eyes. I have trust issues, what can I say.
We went on a cheesy overnight Valentine’s Day getaway at Salvatore’s Rose Garden Hotel. We were totally “those people”. The girl at the table next to us was a total prude, and lactose intolerant to boot. What’s wrong with a little PDA?
One morning, Jack let me wear his slippers instead of my heels when I had to do a “Walk of Shame” down to the NFTA stop. We rode the bus together back to my house, and when one of the nefarious local drunks climbed aboard, Jack shielded me from his gaze.
Jack buys me stuffed animals too, like, all the time.
Oh and who could forget our “couples costume” this past Halloween: young Avril Lavigne and Carnivore-era Peter Steele?
It’s not perfect – I did stomp a bag of Ruffles in combat boots when Jack wasn’t paying enough attention to me during The Masked Singer. Jack gets moodier and more bitchy than I ever do over which Dollar General to go to. But I just roll my eyes.
This might be the only one of my blogs not ending with me running away screaming from whatever male I’d been dealing with… But I would miss Salty too much if I bailed. We are enmeshed in mess all right, James and Salty and me, and on lockdown to boot. I only wish that this summer, Jack and I will find ourselves at the beach again, listening to the sound of the waves, doing photoshoots, drinking Hemptails, and just staring distantly at the clouds floating by.