As an elementary school teacher there comes a time at the end of every day where the average red-blooded American man needs to identify the means by which he will maintain his frail grasp on reality. A place of solace and comfort where he ponders how it was exactly that he embarked on this emotionally draining, financially unrewarding, migraine headache-producing path of thankless idealism.
Usually by about his third bottle of Bud he is reminded that the reason that the average red-blooded American male ventures down the path of thankless idealism is that women are endlessly impressed by his ability to comfortably interact with a 6 year old who has the face of an angel and the disposition of a displaced dictator an then relate such an interaction to the amusement of others. I suppose there is something to the whole idealism thing. My bother spends his days trying to convince those bastions of American society over at Aqua-Fresh where to spend their advertising dollars.
A necessary occupation for certain, however, the nature of his work often leaves him bemoaning his likely candidacy for a mid-life crisis sometime in the near future. Thankfully by that time the aforementioned elementary school teacher is on Bid number eight and it is much less painful. After being “on” all day I often find that I need some time at the end of the day to retreat into the useless recess of my mind. Often I can still hear the din of the children’ voices ringing in my head… Timmy is in my seat… Sarah stole my pencil… Kayla drew a picture of me with no head…
Chris says that he is a super hero but I know he isn’t. Since the unfortunate closing of the Madison Pub, which sat nestled under some Sex and the City-esque ladies clothing stores on the corner of 79th and Madison I have had the opportunity to give my aching liver a rest since a wicked combination of laziness and the need for classroom organization prevents me from heading down to 3rd Ave. My new spot has become the upper crust Serafina coffee shop right next to the upper crust Serafina restaurant, which I went to once with my upper crust girlfriend.
It didn’t work out which was just as well because to be perfectly honest I much preferred the coffee shop on the corner anyway. The coffee shop has two wooden benches on either side of its doorway. If you sit on the bench on the right you are right next to the door to the restaurant, and is as wonderful a perch for people watching as can be had. On this particular day in early April there was still enough of a chill in the air to keep most people away which suited me fine since my goal was to see no one that wanted to speak to me and if by chance I was spotted I had my borderline rude personality ready to deploy at a moments notice.
As I sat waiting for the steamed milk (because when you buy a cup of coffee on 79th and Madison they steam the milk for you) to cool to a sub-scalding temperature I was relishing the fact that I was alone. When quite suddenly the unfortunate presence of a real person broke through my silent reverie. I was instantly annoyed. Do people bother ______ or Green Lantern when he is recharging his ring? The character before me was a homeless man and distinctly unlike any homeless man I had ever seen and after 29 years in NYC I have seen my share.
He was average in height and build but he had this shock of white hair protruding from a black-skull cap. He looked like a cross between Doc Brown from Back to the Future and Jack Warden. “Excuse me sir, can I sit with you? If I sit by myself they will make me leave, but if I am with you, then I can stay. ” Apparently my alternate personality deployment team needs to be shaken up because my borderline rude take-a-hint personality did not deploy. Someone will need to be held accountable for this one.
Perhaps it was because this man actually waited for me answer before sitting down, or maybe it is because I have the powder blue UN peacekeeping force of borderline rude take-a-hint personalities. But for one reason or another I found myself sitting next to this character, who after thanking me for allowing him to sit with me informed me that his name was Poet O. My will to fight to protect my self-time dissipated in the face of curiosity as to how a guy living in the park comes by the title Poet O. He of course informed me that he was a poet of sorts and asked me if I would like to hear a poem.
He offered me a list of topics from with to chose and it was this list that brought me to attention, as his list was quite specific to my personality, almost as if he knew me. I hesitated a moment to long and he saved from the slippery slope of probing my inner sexual psyche by asking me what my mood was. When I responded “mellow” he proceeded to recite a poem that he either made up on the spot or recalled from memory.
I was duly impressed and now thoroughly interested in this duct-tape carting enigma. He asked what I did for a living and I talked to him about the ins and outs of idealism vs. ursuit of instant gratification. I had stopped attending to the passerby’s and was now giving Poet O my undivided attention when a black Ford Expedition with tinted windows caught my eye. When two rather large, genially-deprived gentlemen stepped out and just stood there across from me and my new coffee buddy. All of a sudden out of the back of the truck hops Tom Cruise. Even with my strong background in heterosexuality he seemed to have a different glow about him (although of course I was surprised at how short he was).
I uttered a surprised “Tom Cruise” as he bounded by me, which seemed a little silly in retrospect, even by celebrity sighting standards since he very likely had not forgotten his own name. Tom flashed me that big old movie star smile, gave me a half salute, and disappeared into the restaurant, followed by some bald man in suit, carrying a briefcase, on his cell phone and likely to be saved the midlife crisis sure to strike my brother only be the fact that he probably makes an obscene amount of money. Well Poet O jumps up and announces, “Tom Cruise!
He should be good for $100! ” Well this sobered me up from the intoxication of the king of all my celebrity sightings. Not wanting to completely shatter his excitement I used my best teacher voice to inform my misguided celebrity chaser that even if he got into the restaurant, which I deemed highly unlikely, there was no way that he was going to get close to Tom Cruise. “See that’s why he pays those two really big mean guys. ” As he stood weighing his options he related to me that he had once got $100 off of Dustin Hoffman.
So with my best mock indignation voice I informed Poet O of the emotional ramifications of the fact that he had used me for a seat and was now preparing to abandon me for a famous actor who held the negligible possibility of a large contribution to the Poet O fund. Unmoved he simply replied, “I was just a teacher and that was Tom Cruise. ” But faced with long odds on all fronts he sat back down. Unable to argue with such painfully obvious logic we sat in silence for a moment.
Then he announced that he was going to be late for dinner at the church on Lex and he had to leave but before he left he was going to do something for me. He said that he spent his days providing therapy in the park to young people like myself for a small donation, but since talking to me had been therapy for him he was going to let me ring the bell for free. Perceiving that I was somewhat under whelmed by this offer he went on to explain that he had a Unicorn bell and that if I had a wish, rang the bell and then didn’t tell anyone what my wish was for 24 hours it would come true.
He then set about untying this plastic bag that hung from the top bar of his shopping cart. His fingers were so cold that he was having trouble so I had to help him. Inside this plastic bag was a basket all wrapped up in silver duct tape that held this tarnished gold Unicorn Bell. He implored me again to make a wish and ring the bell. Unable to completely let go of my skepticism I expressed a half-hearted desire for “the easing of my financial woes. ” In retrospect I wish I had been somewhat more ambitious since “easing” is a very open-ended notion to be sure.
I rang the bell, returned it to it’s nest of duct tape and re-tied the bag on Poet O’s cart, who bid me a hasty goodbye and disappeared into the Manhattan evening leaving me with an ice cold last sip of coffee with steamed milk and the hope that Tom Cruise would soon reappear from his upper crust dining experience. I soon abandoned my post in favor of seeking the company of others with whom I might recant my tale of the past hour. Although I freely included the part where I made a wish, in accordance with Poet O’s directive I did not tell anyone what the wish was for 24 hours. I think I actually waited longer then that just to be sure.
Within a week, in a most fantastic (yet wholly legal) way I came into $10,000 that did just ease my financial woes and the belief that I had lived a modern day fairytale just like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. I never did see Poet O again and I have maintained a steady presence on that bench. I never saw Tom Cruise again and was duly unimpressed when I spotted Matt Dillon having ice cream with a girl who looked about 18 on the same corner. The $10,000 went all to credit card debt accrued in my younger less responsible days, save for one night out where I paid for everything and happily re-told the story to anyone who would listen.