Friend and crawl photographer Teddy Jefferson is back today as my wingman. My regular ace, Larry, has been off acting in movies. I’d like to say he was discovered while he was on the crawl but that is not the case.
It’s a dank sort of gray cold day, 11 A.M. and Teddy is late. When he arrives I notice his hair is wet under his hat. He’s a warm weather cat. He looks a little pale and bedraggled today. He mutters something about a late night.
In a small coffee place I sit by the window and put on my kneepads while Teddy sips his tea. I am next to an elderly couple, a man wearing a beret with a long nose and rheumy eyes and his wife, ruddy faced, retired librarian type. They notice me putting on my pads and they look at each other and shrug. I make a moment of small talk with them about this and that and I do not mention the pads. I can tell they are curious.
Outside on the street I can’t recall where I stopped last time. I must not chance leaving a block out so I go back half a block and start at 76th. As I am about to begin Teddy is telling me a story about a crazy Russian from the night before. Teddy tells great stories but I can’t focus right now.
“Sorry, man, can you finish this story when I’m done?” I say.
My ability to listen grows limited right before I crawl. I hear talking but the words start to be distant sounds drowned out by a kind of wind rising inside my head. All this is accompanied by the sound of what I am about to do. He understands.
I crawl half a block and then I go right past the old couple by the window in the coffee place and I wave to them and they wave back. I imagine all their speculation about the pads is put to rest as they watch me crawl by. I’m sure neither of them guessed that this was my special purpose.
Occasionally I see Teddy’s fancy two toned Spanish assassin shoes moving near me. He is taking pictures, but he is very discreet. I let my head hang and I concentrate on the sidewalk and the sound of my boots.
I’m punching the clock, reporting for duty. I feel like a farm animal, like a workhorse or a donkey pulling a plow. Nobody says anything to me at all for a block or two. A few dogs bark at me and I bark back.
I stop at a light and a light skinned Hispanic guy in camo pants swings in out of nowhere on a bike with a radio strapped to the handlebars. He’s solidly built with a mustache and a certain thick- necked menace about him. He looks like he might have done some time. His manner dares anyone to comment on his radio.
He turns down his radio and we exchange a few unpleasant pleasantries. I can tell he’s not happy with me. His hackles rise as he speaks and an internal alarm alerts me that he might be a problem.
“If I had a son I would NEVER ever let him be on his knees. Ever. That’s not what God wants.”
He strikes me as a guy that gets ahead of himself on a regular basis.
Something in him wants to punish me for being publically submissive. That’s how he sees it. We are dogs. He’s wrestling with his impulse to attack. He pauses. Maybe he’s counting to ten. I am waiting for the light to change, resting on my knees.
“Yeah, well… I don’t know what God wants,” I say.
“Get off your knees,” he says and he seems ready to get me off my knees.
“I’m not done yet,” I say, matching his conviction.
“You shouldn’t be on your knees. It’s not right.”
I shift my tone to something a little more intense.
“Maybe I put some people on their knees and I’m doing this for them,” I say.
I’m not sure what I mean by this but I say it with sufficient force and it reroutes him somehow. He looks away, the corners of his mouth turn down and he nods. Suddenly, for him, I might actually be okay. He changes his mind.
“Okay. Suit yourself. Be well.”
He holds out a fist and I bump it with mine and then he rides off. I hear his radio volume go up to full distortion as he heads south.
For some reason after that interaction I start feel like I am dragging my own dead body at the end of a rope behind me. I feel heavy but the heaviness is not within me, it is my burden, back behind me. It is hard work to keep going and my shoulders and chest burn. How far could I drag my dead self? Another thing I will never know.
A block later I see a whispy haired guy at the corner on his smart phone. He looks mild, unassuming, with tensed up shoulders and a fake smile on his face. I imagine he enjoys complaining. He’s talking about me. I hear the word “crawl” and “suit” as I approach and when I stop for the light and get up on my knees I am just a couple feet away from him.
“Are you talking about me on your phone?!” I say, sort of mock confrontational. I think I smile but maybe I don’t.
“I should hang up,” he says to the person on the call with him and he lowers the phone and looks a little worried. He tries to explain himself to me.
“No. I mean yes… but no judgement at all. No criticism. Nothing like that.”
His words come out fast. He is unnerved.
“It’s okay,” I say and I drop down and crawl away.
On the next block, around 84th, the elderly white couple from the coffee place is standing there smiling down at me. They’ve been following me. They look younger when they are standing up. Or maybe they are energized by the little adventure we’re having. First there was the small talk with the kneepads in the café, then my crawling by and waving from the sidewalk and then them following me, and finally this interaction on the street. Maybe this is fun for them. Maybe everything has been the same for them for too damn long. Today something unusual happened. Today the city seemed alive and magical again, capable of surprising them, like the old days. Maybe I jolted them out of a rut. Maybe someday when life is almost over one of them will remind the other of this moment. Remember when we followed that man who was crawling?
I come upon a towering, fully made-up, mind-bendingly gorgeous black woman. She looks to probably be caring for two little white boy twin toddlers. Her smile is shy and vast. She’s pushing the boys in a stroller and talking on her phone. She sees me coming and she stops. I wave to the boys as I approach and they stop eating their snacks and gape at me. She gets off her phone, brushes her long gold streaked hair back with her candy-coated fingernails, and calmly asks if she can take my picture. Her voice is a low, animated, deeply female moan. There is no way to hear her speak without hearing the sound of her private pleasure. I want to climb her like a tree and swing from her eyelashes.
Teddy is suddenly with us.
“You have a beautiful voice,” he says.
“Thank you,” she replies and she takes my picture. He takes her picture.
I keep going.
A block further north I come upon a pile of rags. It is a man in the fetal position half sleeping against the wall of a storefront. He is beyond the bounds of filth. It takes months to get as dirty as he is. Maybe years. He wears many layers of shredded plastic and cloth. A green blanket. His head is wrapped in a kind of mangled turban of soiled burlap. The dirt on his face has conquered his pores, at one with the leather of his skin, scorched by wind and sun and cold. His eyes flash, bloodshot and shining with exhaustion and madness. I stop, he sees me, I nod and he nods back.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
“Not bad. I guess,” he says. “You?”
“Just crawling,” I say.
He attempts to explain the outrage of his situation using a series of apocalyptic paranoid non-sequiturs.
Teddy drifts over and takes a picture and the guy immediately gets very agitated.
“Hey no pictures of the family! No pictures of the sidewalk family, you motherfucker. No pictures of US!” He says.
Us? He means him. And me.
He sits up and tries to stand and go after Teddy, but he’s tangled in his own rags and blankets. I decide I should keep crawling. Teddy is briskly walking away up ahead of me. The man manages to stand up and then he starts to rave at my wingman.
“Come back here you faggot, I’ll fight you right now, I fucked your wife! She’s a prostitute, YEAH, we all fucked her last week!”
For some reason I’m not especially worried that he will come after me. I’m moving away from him though, and that seems right. He could change his mind and decide I need to be punished, but I never once consider getting up. I must crawl away with the faith that he includes me, somehow, in his world. I must have faith that I will not be attacked. He made a decision about me when he first saw me. At least that’s what it felt like. For the moment I am not at risk. He is still screaming.
He wants to rape Teddy’s corpse, but he’s cool with me.