ChessInThePark

“My father said, ‘When in doubt, castle.'”
-Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

“Ich bin ein lebenslustiger Pessimist.”
-Günter Grass

The City takes a lot out of you. And it takes a lot to live here.

I often wonder if they, the Powers That Be, are planning on making NYC just a Mecca for the Ultra Rich and Powerful. Everything keeps going up in price except salaries. The monthly fare for a Metrocard jumped from $112 to $116.50. Still cheaper than owning a car and not that the $4.50 would have gotten you much here anyway.

 Most of my paychecks are spoken for by the time they clear my account. If it isn’t rent, well, it’s student loans. If it’s not student loans, it’s food, cell phone bills, Metrocards, and adventures gone wrong.

Last year, towards the end of September, I lost my job. It was the first time ever that I had been let go from a job. I wasn’t sad to be canned. But, I was still a bit shocked. My coworkers liked me, I did what was asked of me, I offered help before I left each day, even when I had already been there 10 or 11 hours, and I was often the first to arrive and one of the last to leave. So, when they canned me, it wasn’t for violating some rule or bringing too little money, but rather for seeming sad and unhappy. And not that anyone every asked me if I was sad or unhappy. It was just assumed I was and that was that.

One of my managers came out of a meeting, smiling and laughing a bit as she told me my bosses would like to speak with me. I assumed it was my one year review that was 4 months overdue. They asked me to sit down, slid a piece of paper in front of me, asked me to read it, and sign it if I didn’t have any questions. The paper was informing me as of that day I was no longer employed. So, I asked, “Why is that?”

“You just seem unhappy. And you’ll probably be better off. And don’t take it that we don’t like you, we just don’t fire people that often if that makes you feel better. You’re only the second one we’ve ever fired.”

Well, it didn’t really make me feel much better. But, I just said, well, it’s your company and you can fire and hire who you please, shook their hands, signed the paper, and stood up. They told me to remain seated for a bit while they cleared everyone out of the office. I sort of felt like they believed I would flip out and go into some berserker rage, destroying the place. Instead I just smiled and said nice things and went about packing up my things. They apologized more about firing me the more polite I was about the whole thing.

I honestly didn’t care about losing the job. I was more worried about living in one of the most expensive cities in the USA and rent and student loans and food. You know, money.

I think the guilt finally got to them and decided it was OK for everyone to come back to the office and say their goodbyes and whatnot. Three of my colleagues cried and the only other guy in the office gave me a hug and whispered into my ear, “Bullshit, dude.”

So, there I was in the middle of Manhattan with a bag full of junk that came out of my desk. Most of it was just garbage. I didn’t really know what to do. It was before noon. I didn’t really feel like going home and I really didn’t feel like standing on 27th Street with a bag full of odds and ends. I ended up calling my mom and saying, “Well, fuck it, I got fired.” Then I called my girlfriend and said, “Well, fuck it, I got fired.” Then I called my friend Michael and basically said the same time. We talked for about an hour and then I realized I made my way all the way to Washington Square Park. The weather was still nice and it was peaceful and full of music and performers. I just sat there for a few hours before heading home.

The worst thing about the whole ordeal was people telling me, hey, things will work out in the end. Well, yeah, eventually they will. But, I wasn’t at the end yet and my savings account wasn’t anything to write home about.

I decided to just bum around a few days and spend some thinking time in the park. I got out 20 bucks, telling myself, this will be your lunch money for the rest of the week. Surprisingly, you can eat fairly well and cheap depending on what street vendors you go to. I prefer the lamb over rice. Only $5 and pretty filling.

One of the things I instantly noticed about the Park was that it was packed with people. Were they unemployed like me? Who knows. I didn’t stop and ask anyone. Didn’t seem polite.

I was on my fourth or fifth round of making a giant figure-8 in the park, lost in my own thoughts, when someone said something to me. I didn’t hear them, so my brain said, hey, dummy respond. “Oh, what? Sorry.”

“I said, do you want some grass?”

“Oh, no, I’m good. Thanks.”

“Powder? Pills?”

I told him I was alright and wasn’t on the market for anything. He just said, “Well, you’ve been walking past me for the last 20 or so minutes, I just thought you were shy.”

About 30 minutes later and counts figure-8s, he came up to me again and started to say something, but instead just yelled, “Ah, hell, it’s just you again, dammit.”

On my third day in the park, I eventually decided to watch the chess players instead of making large circles around the park. Interesting observation, they are mainly just old black guys. It made me think about living in Bowling Green and how my friend Kenny and I would play chess everyday. Neither of us were that good and I could drink a whole cup of coffee, it seemed, before Kenny made a move.

I got up to leave when a nice old many in a leather jacket and newsboy cap asked me to play a game. He said something to me, which I took for best three out of five– his accent was thick. I just figured he was from Jamaica or the Cayman Islands. I never asked and he never said. The games were timed and the first one was over in less than a minute. The second one was a close call, but my timer ran out and I lost the match. But he only had two pieces left on the board. I got a bit too cocky in the third game and while it wasn’t over ask quick as the third, I still had 45 seconds on the clock when he called out “checkmate.” Well, that was my three games. I was getting up to leave and he grabbed my arm and said, “Hey, how about one more? If you win, you can have it.” I didn’t really understand what “it” was or why I would want “it,” but I said alright and sat back down. I put him in check a couple of times, he put me in check, but in the end, I still lost.

Oh, well. It just seemed to me that I was on a losing streak that week. I grabbed my bag, stuck out my hand for him to shake it, shook hands, and started to leave. He called after me and I turned out. I didn’t make it a step even, really. “You don’t want to pay me?”

“Excuse me?”

“Pay me? For the games?”

“Jesus, I didn’t realize you had to pay.”

“I told you, three for five. $5 a game.”

Then it hit, he didn’t say “best three out of five.” He was saying it was $5 a pop. He looked me up and down and said, “Let’s just make it fifteen.”

The only money I had on me was the 20 dollar bill I got out a couple of days earlier. I hadn’t even spent part of it on food. I felt too guilty about spending it. So I told him, “I only got a twenty.”

“That’s fine, too.”

He took my money and I stopped going to the park. Everywhere in this damned city is a money pit, I told myself and went home.

***

Yesterday, one of my favorite German authors died. Saturday was the 8th anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s death, and it got me thinking, man, I am running out of literary heroes. I made a mental list of authors I liked who were still living, and Günter Grass was on that list. I thought about how I hadn’t read anything by him in a while and how it might be a good time to finish Die Box which I had bought a couple of years ago and would read from it and put it on the shelf and forget about it for a couple of months. I’ve been getting that way with books. I don’t finish nearly as many as I like and not because they are bad, but just because I only have time to read before bed. Which isn’t a very good time to read. And the fact that I feel like Pavlov’s dog now. Not that I drool when I think about reading, but that I feel incredibly sleepy every single time I pick up a book.

Anyway, I wanted to share this video of Günter Grass. Please enjoy.