Magazine Skin

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Jilly and I used to go for walks around the neighborhood after dinner. We lived near Times Square, back in the days when West 46th Street still boasted the highest murder rate in town. One evening, on the way up 9th Avenue to watch show-off Broadway dancers in their fishbowl rehearsal studio, we passed a 1970s aircraft carrier-style station wagon, more crashed than parked. The motor was running.

A chubby balding Chinese man sat slumped at the wheel. Drool stained the front of his pale blue work-shirt. The car was stuffed to the shredded upholstery rafters with magazines.

"This newspaper delivery boy strayed and got seriously lost along his route."

Jilly thought it might be conceptual art. "Or maybe he does flea markets cross-country."

The stacked magazines were seriously worn. The piles weren't neat, didn't seem to be arranged by year or subject matter. They weren't bound together, fastened to anything or stored in containers, which meant sudden stops were potentially life-threatening. The cab was also full of smoke, which I attributed to spontaneous mildew combustion, or a dropped cigarette or ashtray overflow which resulted in a slow burn through slick paper. Maybe the guy was deeply involved in bizarre barbecue hara-kiri peep-show suicide.

Not a homeowner. No garage to afford carbon-monoxide asphyxiation self-snuff privacy. Didn't really want to die. Secretly hoped someone would step in and convince him life's worth living.

The enormous archaic beater-wagon had Florida plates.

Suicidal periodicals-obsessed Chinese guy drove all the way to New York Kitty Genovese Fuckin' City, where nobody wants to get involved.

Jilly was already a hundred feet up the block.

My brain temporarily disavowed big city mentality. I rapped on the window.

The Chinese guy jumped a foot. Charlie-horsed his exposed pale hairless thigh on the steering wheel. He was wearing gray-striped summertime mailman shorts. He thrashed, accidentally honked the horn with his elbow. He bulged his eyes, mouthed words. A thin clear string of drool escaped his lips.

Must've thought I was a cop or something. Cops occasionally help people, but usually sudden police presence means trouble. The Chinese guy must've thought I was the trouble kind of cop, and held up his hands. I played along, signaled for him to open the window.

"Shut off your engine please, sir."

Maybe the Chinese guy didn't understand English. He wiped drool on his wrist, nervously fumbled for cigs in his torn shirt-pocket. I did motor-killing key-turn hand-jive. He shakily complied. The engine died with sputtering sounds, a tubercular piston-cough. The Chinese guy opened the door, got out. He needed air, sucked it in hard.

Nobody could charge me with masquerading as an officer. I didn't ask to see a license or recite the Miranda mantra, but I inspected his vehicle. The only probable cause I had going for me was, I was curious. Women's fashion, sports, fancy automobiles, comic books, movie star scandal-sheets, trade publications for various extinct and near-extinct trades...enough slick fodder for every dentist's office in the USA. Not a Chinese rag in sight. Ashtrays stuffed with various-brand butts, burned to the filter and past. Overpowering reek of stale smoke, sad tang of outdated pulp, sweat, infrequent laundry, takeout containers chucked, buried, forgotten. Fuzzy dice and a tiny red paper lantern with a swinging tassel on the rearview mirror. Puerto Rican witchcraft plastic saint figurine Krazy Glued to the crumbling cracked black dashboard. As I dug deeper, I expected to turn up rats, cockroaches, feces, human remains.

Jilly backtracked, grabbed my shirt. "He's OK. Leave him alone. Let's go."

There wasn't enough build-up to work with. I needed to hear the punch-line before I could re-create the body of the joke and split the scene.

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