Whew, this has been rattling around my brain pan for a few days. So, here's a first draft of 2,100 words--and the mirror isn't even broken. Darn, I never could follow directions.
Eighty Beatty and the Mirror
When I told the clerk at the bookstore a guy had fallen asleep in the stacks, he said pretty nonchalantly, “That’s Eighty Beatty. He’s a regular. Buys books occasionally, but usually just gives ‘em to me, or asks for a few bucks if he’s hungry.”
“A derelict?” I asked. The man, a black guy about forty or forty-five years old, didn’t look like a bum. His clothes were quality from the look of the cut, but they were badly in need of a pressing. I edited a trade magazine for the dry cleaning business and I knew my clothes.
“Don’t call Eighty a bum, man.” The clerk, Ramone, was himself only about 25 years old and an early dropout of the ratrace. “He’s educated, the self-taught way. None of that college crap, he’s from the School of the Streets.”
“Well, I guess it saves tuition. Plus you can sleep through classes in a cardboard box.” I was pretty cynical in those days, when the 1960s moved painfully into the seventies. “But why’d you call him Eighty?”
“That’s just what people call him, ’cause he’s smart enough to be an 80-year-old. Came out of the Korean War and spent some time in the hospital. That’s why his eye’s gone bad. I sometimes go out for coffee and tell him to keep an eye on the place. It’s my little joke.”
Eighty’s eye was the first thing you fastened on. His left eye wandered, what they call lazy eye or somesuch because the muscles have a mind of their own. He’d be looking at you and holding a conversation about Teilhard de Chardin and Christian philosophy, but that eye would be scanning the street like an airport beacon and you wondered what he was picking up while your two eyes just stared in one direction.
“What are you reading?” he asked me about an hour later when I was sitting on a stoop on Second Avenue enjoying the spring sun. It had been a bitch of a winter. My girlfriend Linda had gone away because of something I said—or something I didn’t say. Maybe my soul had also taken off without leaving a forwarding address because I was sure life was pointless and God was having a whale of a joke over it.
“Not reading anything.”
“’Course you are, else why’re you in that bookstore?”
“Ah, well, I was looking at a copy of Siddhartha, Herman Hesse’s....”
“I know. I have an autographed copy.” He parked his cart and sat down next to me. “What else?”
“The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler.” I blew off his claim that he had Hesse’s autograph. Bum talk.
“Interesting book. Just about one original idea in it, about people who can surf the culture change—or can’t. I called Toffler up and asked him about that. Pity, Toffler’s popularity led to crowds hustling the very culture he’s trying to warn us about.”
Eighty and I talked, sitting there, for about an hour. Time stopped as I became engrossed in his words that rolled all golden and unique and filled with thoughts I’d never considered. After that, I found our paths crossed every week or two in places like the Metropolitan or the Frick Museum, but also in some of the odder places like an atelier run by Red Martin out of his basement apartment on Seventh Street. Martin, who everyone called Sarge, invited any articulate person to visit him on Sunday afternoons for strong talk. It was also an excuse to see how much booze we could put away sitting around this immense old oak table in his living room. Generally, Sarge would come up with a subject to start things off, like, why do they put pictures of criminals up in the Post Office? He said, “What are we supposed to do, write to these characters? Why don't they just put their pictures on the postage stamps so the mailmen can look for them while they deliver the mail?” The real point of these little discussions was drinking—to act sophisticated but unable to pronounce it. We contributed the whiskey and Sarge and Eighty liberated our minds.
Sarge said he had served with Eighty Beatty in the Seventh Cav in the retreat from Pyongtaek in 1959. “That’s where he got shrapnel in his eye,” Martin said late one Sunday afternoon when we were both slightly drunk.”
“He’s pretty sharp for a guy who seems to be one step above sleeping on the streets.”
Sarge punched me on the shoulder. Hard. “Don’t ever say that. Eighty’s about the smartest human being I’ve ever met. That’s why we nicknamed him Eighty. ‘Cause he thinks like he’s eighty years old. He’s got the whole world’s wisdom locked into his brain, man. Like you and me are little people, small-brained lemurs, and Eighty is this giant evolved creature who thinks five moves ahead. Like you and me are pondering small stuff, stuff like should we put mustard or catsup on our hamburgers, and Eighty’s considering where we are in relation to the entire cosmos, asking existential stuff like, if man evolved from monkeys and apes, why do we still have monkeys and apes?”
Sarge and Eighty could get pretty drunk, but the more they talked the more it was Eighty who intrigued me. Eighty lived over on the West Side in the meat-packing district. I learned this when I was drinking coffee out of a paper cup and reading the Sunday Times on the Eighth Street pier and Eighty sidled up.
“Yep, I live ‘round here,” he admitted. “That building there. I see you readin’ the Arts section. Wanta see my de Kooning drawing?”
Willem de Kooning had just moved to New York City from Europe and was taking the art world by storm, at least that’s what the Times critics were saying. I somehow couldn’t believe a black guy in a worn suitcoat and pushing a supermarket cart owned a de Kooning, so I followed him across the West Side highway and up to his third floor of apartment. He used three keys to open the front door and stood aside while I stepped in—actually took just a single step because I was overwhelmed to see that his entire apartment consisted of dark, narrow aisles among floor to ceiling shelves. The shelves contained books and manuscripts and file folders and newspapers—old leather-bound books, yellowed folios, blocks of paperbacks books, directories and oversized coffee-table books. From the titles I could read on the spines, there was everything from archaeology to zoology.
“You go first,” I told him.
“Don’t be scared. A little learning can be dangerous, but you got a lot of learning, I know.” He laughed with a rumble that started somewhere down in his stomach.
He sat me down at a kitchen table in the only chair in the apartment and turned on the overhead light. There were shelves of books everywhere, including every square inch of space in the kitchen. It was a wonder the whole thing didn’t go up in flames when he turned on the toaster.
“This here’s the de Kooning. “ He placed a small glassine envelope in front of me, and carefully took out a scrap of paper the size of a postcard.
“This doesn’t look like a painting,” I said.
“’Course not. It’s a drawing. I was in Paris same time as him a coupla years ago, an’ went over and knocked on his door and said, We gotta talk, man. I gotta know where art is headed. Ended up we talked for hours an’ then he sketched out this little drawing and give it to me.”
“You realize what this is worth, Eighty?”
“You’re missin’ the point, Jake. This is a tiny view of the world. You’re looking at the whole world through Willem de Kooning’s eyes.”
“Eighty, what are you? What’s with the books here? Are you a collector? Are you a museum?”
He hunkered down on the floor since there were no other chairs. One eye stared at the de Kooning in my hand and the other roamed around the room, out the little kitchen window framed by bookcases and over the rooftops to Paris or Korea.
“I guess it started when I got back here, to the States after the war. I got discharged in Japan, and I got outta the hospital and started workin’ my way ‘round the world. I did Thailand and India, Egypt and North Africa, crossed the strait to Spain and over the Pyranees into France, up to Germany and Scandinavia, over to England.” His voice drifted off and he began rocking back and forth. “I said, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have every book ever written, to have your own Library of Alexandria or Library of Congress? Then, I’d be educated. The whole world in my head. Hell, I read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica at the New York Public Library! That ain’t nothin’.”
I had a whole library in my head to think about when I walked home that afternoon.
A month passed, and as summer took over the city I didn’t seem to note that Eighty wasn’t on the street anymore. One Sunday, I dropped by Sarge’s place, carrying a bottle of Jameson’s Irish to share in exchange for an idea or two to tickle my brain.
“Eighty’s in St. Luke’s hospital,” Sarge told me. “Eighty went down.” Sarge had started the drinking before me and was pretty gassed, along with several others lolling about the big round table.
“What do you mean, went down?”
“One of those shelves collapsed. Fell right on him and broke him up pretty bad. Neighbors kinda look in on him time to time, and they found him and called the paramedics.”
I put my bottle of Jameson back in my rucksack and headed off to St. Luke’s as soon as I got the details from Martin.
I found Eighty in a room with three other beds, two filled with patients and one with the white sheet welcome mat out. Eighty’s dark face contrasted with the white sheets. His good eye fixed on me and his face lit up, while the other eye rattled around checking the TV, the lighting system, the window overlooking the street.
“C’mon in and tell me what shakin’, young Jake!” His booming voice told me his injuries weren’t life threatening. In fact, he seemed more at ease with life than me.
“Sarge told me your world collapsed,” I said.
He roared with laughter. “My world just opened up, Jake.”
“What the hell happened? Sarge said a bookcase....”
He waved me into a chair. “I found the greatest thing, a brass Japanese mirror they used in the old days, one that had some writing on the back and I put it on the top shelf until I could take it ‘round to Columbia University or somewhere to have it translated, and wouldn’t you know it, the who damn bookcase fell over on me. I was trapped under all those books, staring at the frontispiece of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I was there all afternoon and all night, lying im-mobile as it were. Nothin’ to do but think or read that first page of Boswell over and over. I started thinkin’, what the hell was I doing, trying to collect ever’ book in the world, trying to turn my life into a Library of Congress. When the sun come up, I looked in the mirror with my good eye and saw the window reflected in it, and outside the clouds and pigeons on the window sill.”
“The Japanese mirror?”
“The very same. And, I said, Beatty, you goin’ to die here looking at the world through this tarnished old mirror. What did you think you was doin’, trying to collect the world and put it on a shelf? The world’s knowledge is out there, not in your apartment.”
“You going to shuck the books? Get rid of them and change your life? Man, I thought you were a fixture of the Lower East Side, one of the unchangeable verities of life.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” he laughed. Wordsworth or Whitman—one of those guys with lotsa W’s in their name—said ‘The world is too much with me.’ Well, I can’t get enough of it, and as soon I get outta this hospital I’m hittin’ the road again. And if I get crazy about trying to get ahold of books to take the place of the real world, I’ll have my Japanese mirror for a reality check.”
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