The New Guy is not a new guy, in the sense that he’s done this line of work before–raising penguins that is—which is certainly a strange thing for anyone to have on their resume. New Guy has a decade and a half on me, having raised some of the birds I now give geriatric medications to, back when the penguins were in quarantine and freshly arrived from Cape Crozier; before my arrival, even, into the world. NG is cantankerous to a fault, though he also has a penchant for tossing around rattle-throated niceties on the regular.
Me: Thanks for helping me with that.
NG: Hey–anything for a pal. I’d take a bullet in the head for you.
Me: What’s up, friend?
NG: Aloha, mi simpatico!
(Which is the sort of mashed-up patois that makes NG him).
For lunch, he invariably has yogurt, a piece of fruit, and a cigarette.
NG: I’m gonna go smoke in the ‘Sitting Section’ now.
NG: Well, off to the Leper Colony.
He smokes cheap tobacco while reading the news on his phone. We confer often on Salon.com’s recent offerings, else what is published on The Daily Beast, Slate, Atlantic, Alternet. He eschews social media but is savvy to the left-leaning politico blogs. We both have grey hair and progressive tendencies, why I’m his chosen simpatico. The guy knows his Sanders; he also know his music, and we relate about—maybe—that Kate Bush song which just came on the radio (The ‘Hounds of Love’ being his Desert Island disc), or The Waterboys’ ‘Life of Sundays.’ His ears prick when there are certain mechanical resonations in the building.
“Hear that? That’s the first three notes of ‘Love Cats.’ Y’know: that Cure song.”
The other day, we were leaving work, and he was singing a ‘Jim Carroll Band’ tune, ‘singing’ being the chosen misnomer for reciting tunelessly: “Those were the people who died, died/ Those were the people who died/ All my friends/ They died.’
“Hey! I love Jim Carroll” I say, punching him on the shoulder. “Didja ever see ‘Basketball Diaries’?
NG was shouldering a khaki backpack and holding an almost pitiable cupcake in his hands. He was off to see his new friend, this elderly woman who, by his definition, walks around like a ‘fucking upside-down ‘J’. He had found her toppled over on the street the other week, walker awry, and with a goose egg forming on her head.
NG: “She was on the sidewalk and everyone was gathered round not doing a goddamn thing. She was saying, ‘Help me up’ so I just helped her up.” NG shrugs at this point in the narrative.
He helped her up, and drove her to the nursing home down the block where, by her estimation, the people running the joint are assholes—them and her goddamn son. No one allows her to smoke despite her at least seven and fiercely independent decades on the planet. Her husband’s already in ashes—why not allow her to ash on these latter and last days, when she’s in a neck brace after back surgery and also a bump-headed curiosity on the sidewalk.
New Guy and her have a pact and sneak smokes in the stairwell. She doesn’t talk much, by his report. But he brings her chocolate and cigarettes, and much-needed company, certainly.
“I liked Basketball Diaries. Think I read the book, too.”
I’m usually the guy who champions the book over the movie, but I admit to not reading the novel; me and NG chat about DeCaprio films and how I prefer his earlier work.
I dunno,” NG drawls, “I’ve never been disappointed too much by recent.”
“Loved Basketball Diaries, and the one where he’s Rimbaud. He grew a jaw, and then I didn’t like his films so much.”
He interjects: “Oh-but then there was that Gilbert Grape crap.”
“I love Gilbert Grape! He was great in that!”
And NG is holding that cupcake and poised to exit work, and I like leaving work with him so we can exchange parting remarks about the RNC and bitch about the middling mammal that is Trump’s hair, as well the lower-echelon crustacean which certainly owns Trump’s brain-stem. We have this thing.
NG owns a truck with Hawaii plates, windows always cranked open to air out the upholstery, I suppose; and before walking out to our respective cars, he voices:
“Gilbert Grape. Proof that any actor can play a ‘TARD.”
A co-worker in the room cackled immediately. “Right?” she encouraged. “So true!”
I considered bristling.
The night before, and in company of a family who also parent a child with Down Syndrome, we discussed the ‘R’ word.
“I can handle ‘retarded,’ was the shrug, ‘Just not retard.’ There being a difference between a watered-down adjective and the direct epithet.
I used to do a great Corky impression years ago. A party trick, when ‘Life Goes On’ was on TV. I would say, smirkedly, after rolling out full-Corky: “I’m going to be cursed with a Down’s kid,” never realizing how awful I was with such tongue-rooted insensitivity, my failed language, the fact that I would have a child with Down Syndrome, and that it would ultimately be so much more a blessing than a curse. I was foolish.
I was a dick.
(Me and the New Guy have grey hair. We are old, him more than me).
‘Tard,” he said. I didn’t correct him, or my co-worker exactly. I’m only corrected by virtue of my own situation, and what I’ve learned in first-person. The words bother me, but I can’t legitimately re-shape anyone else’s lips.
I said: “Please mind my Son.” The only thing I could say. It was not a reprimand, but NG ceased talking, and the laughing stopped.
Me and the NG walked out together and he was still holding the cupcake for his new friend, the broken lady; we were still simpatico. He confessed he was socially retarded. I was convinced he was correct—I didn’t like how he said it at all–but let it be and patted his shoulder good-bye while he left to go give an old lady a pastry while I left to pick up my kid, there ultimately being some kinduv kindness.