So there’s this real-life Denis Johnson character in my neighborhood now. He’s a short guy, late-thirties/early-forties, lean out of necessity, with a ruddy face and blonde mullet that gives him the look of a piece of discarded strawberry-banana Bubblicious. Until this morning he was always in the same royal-blue ensemble—baseball cap, t-shirt, jeans, even sweatbands. Today he had on a tie-dyed t-shirt—though royal-blue was prominent in the swirl. He’s often on a bike, one made for the mountains, that’s, you guessed it, blue. A couple of times I’ve seen him on the stoop of this apartment building down the street. Mostly he’s a block away, scurrying about a corner bodega. But, unlike the crop of miscreants often loafing out front, all covered in a good layer of grime and emitting vodka fumes, he seems to have a position at the bodega, albeit a freelance one, breaking down boxes, taking out the trash, hollering the acknowledgment of instructions from his bike.
What made me certain of his real-life Denis Johnson character status was what I saw him doing in his tie-dye t-shirt this morning: breaking fragments of scrap metal into smaller pieces. He did this in the catholic school driveway that runs alongside the apartment building he’s at. The metal looked like bits of an aluminum shed—the corrugated roof, some corner joints. I had already thought of him as this down-and-out dude—the apartment was his sister’s and it was cramped and she was fed up with him so he hung outside as much as he could, the bike was his transport because of a DUI—but seeing him tearing hunks of metal made me realize the utter Denis Johnson-ness of the man. Because obviously he was breaking down this scrap metal to sell it and selling scrap metal, like copper wiring from the abandoned homes of an unfinished subdivision, is what down-and-out characters from the works of Denis Johnson do.
I wasn’t sure men like this existed anymore, not having seen the like since back when I lived in Wisconsin—though it’s not so much the place as it is the time. There’s something hopeful about it. Granted, I don’t know his actual circumstances. And I hope this all doesn’t come off as patronizing. I was never quite as down-and-out as I imagine this guy to be, but I’ve always been drawn to people like that and vice versa. This guy’s out there, trying to make it work. I’m rooting for the man. Or the illusion. Or myself.