(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)
Last month I got an email from my friend David, a philosophy professor I used to work with at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan back in the 1990s. I knew what the email was about without opening it. The subject line read “Morty.”
I used some credit card points to fly to New York for a memorial gathering. There were photos of Morty on the wall. Morty out in front of his store, arms crossed over his chest, the bald, fearless 70-year-old World War II combat veteran built like a linebacker from the leather-helmet era. Morty at the back of the store, behind his desk, the retail-business survivor, gnawing ferociously on his pipe and pounding on an adding machine. Morty yelling, Morty screaming, Morty cackling with laughter. Morty standing beside his friend Larry, 8th Street behind them, both of them with chins upraised, unbeatable.
The best photo was a simple close-up of the man. Everyone at the gathering gravitated toward it, had a moment with it. The photo showed just his bald head, his face, his eyes. Beneath all the toughness, the Yiddish insults and obscenities, the screaming, there was always something utterly gentle and watchful in his eyes. This came through in the picture. Morty was there when you most needed him. He took care of us.
“Be good to yourself, Joshua,” he said to me more than once through all those years when my formidable self-pummeling tendencies were at their worst. Morty was the only person who called me by my full first name. “If you won’t be good to yourself, Joshua, who else will?”
Most of the people at the gathering were ex-clerks like me, hired in our twenties, now all middle-aged. Morty’s silver-haired friend Larry came, too. The two of them used to sit in the back of the store together every day. When he saw the close-up of Morty, he said, “I miss you, you old fuck,” and began to cry.
I have spent most of the moments of my life wishing I was in some other moment. This affliction may have been at its peak during the slower lulls at the liquor store, when the only thing to do was stare across the counter at the vaguely Mrs. Butterworthian bottle of Frangelico liqueur on the opposite shelf while worrying that a gun-wielding maniac was about to burst in from the street. There was a bell above the entrance, the kind more often associated with the screen doors on general stores in cozy valleys where everyone says “y’all.” I perpetually imagined that the inevitable summons back into the Now would be that homey bell introducing something violent into the limits of my Frangelico trance.
I never did get held up. The worst thing that happened while I was there was when teenage shoplifters swept through the store, shouting and pointing and misdirecting and grabbing. This happened routinely. It was scary and, in the aftermath, enraging. After it was over, every time, I used to grab the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger we kept behind the counter and imagine smashing heads.
One of the instances struck me worse than the others, maybe because the raids had simply happened one too many times, maybe because one of the shoplifters this time had addressed me directly as he was leaving. He looked me in the eyes. His own eyes narrowed to a squint.
“Ghost,” he said, his mouth a scowl. A bullet hole.
I sat down on a stack of boxes of wine. I sat there for a long time. Ghost. The next morning I took the train in from my apartment in Brooklyn and sat across from Morty at the desk in the back of the store and told him I was quitting. I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was 27, the age when rock stars frequently perish. This seemed significant to me, I guess because I was an idiot.
“Joshua, Joshua,” Morty said.
I didn’t know what to say. Where is the story of my life?
I walked back toward the front of the store, the door.
A few months went by. I don’t feel like describing them. I went back to 8th Street, took a deep breath, put my hand to the door.
Jason Isringhausen made it to the big leagues midway through that year when I quit and then, begging and pleading, unquit. There was a television up front, behind the counter. This sometimes helped pass the time.Jeopardy. Mets games. After I returned to the store, I must have seen some of Isringhausen’s earliest innings with his first team, the Mets. I vaguely remember the hoopla around him and a couple other young pitchers. Generation K, I think they were called.
I could easily look it up, but I worry my writing is deteriorating with my habit of bailing midsentence every sentence to graft Google discoveries onto my porous memory. I’ve already bailed on several sentences so far, most recently to see how Jason Isringhausen did when he was 27, and I found out that age 27 was a better year for him than it was for me, and much better than it was for D. Boon, Pigpen, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, etc.
When Jason Isringhausen turned 27, his narrative changed. Unlike those rock stars, his story changed for the better. His first public narrative, Here Comes a Fireballing Youngster Upon Which We Can Rebuild Our Franchise, had given way to a central role as a luckless brittle disappointment in the second narrative, Here We Go Again With The Fucking Mets. But at 27 Isringhausen landed with a new team and found a new role, that of the guy who gets to enact enthusiastic greeting rituals with the catcher at the end of wins.
Baseball was always a part of the store. At the memorial, on a table below the photos of Morty, there were two ticket stubs from the 1986 World Series. There was also a box of 2012 baseball cards. The day after I returned home from the trip to New York, I opened a pack of these new cards while sitting on the floor with my nine-month-old son.
He liked putting the cards in his mouth and gnawing on them. He did the most damage to this Jason Isringhausen card, and it’s the only one I’ve been able to form a bond with. The rest are still too much in their original condition of unreachable slickness. My connection with Now, which has been diminishing since my childhood, seems to be epitomized in my connection, or lack thereof, with the new cards. Everything in this world seems slick and shiny and unfathomable now. Most names I don’t even recognize.
But I do recall the name of the player who, courtesy of my son, now has a small chunk of his head missing. On the back of the card this gap has demolished most of the part where team names are listed. You can make out that his first team was the Mets, and you can see that this was not always true. But here he is, back again with the Mets. He got to return. He got to enact an enthusiastic greeting with a catcher.
He was not the primary catcher-greeter for the Mets last season, but he appears to have been the backup greeter, jumping in when the main guy was all hugged out. In one of his fill-in appearances, he recorded his 300th save. I imagine this is what is being captured in the photo on his 2012 baseball card. It’s a nice moment. A triumphant return. Some glory, some love.
Sometimes the bell above the door signaled the return of a friend of the store—a friend of Morty—who had been away for a while. Maybe it was a salesman, maybe it was someone who used to live in the neighborhood, maybe it was a former clerk.
The returnee would stand inside the doorway for a moment, hurling obscenities at Morty, who would hurl them back, and then the returnee would gradually proceed down the center of the store, pausing to cast aspersions on the selection of wine in the racks, broadly suggesting that its presence was the product of some unseemly combination of Morty’s cheapness and a proclivity of foreigners to bottle their urination. Reaching the back of the store, the returnee would take a seat on the other side of the desk from Morty, like in a late night talk show. Jokes would be told. Morty would cackle apoplectically and slam the desk with his hand. Eventually, the voices would get quieter. Morty would listen to the returnee tell him about how he had been doing out there in the world.
I always hoped to make a happy return. I’d push open the door, making the bell ring, and start screaming obscenities at Morty from the doorway. I’d make my way down the center of the store. I’d sit down across from him. Somehow I’d have a joke to tell him. I’ve never been very good with jokes, but I once made Morty laugh by describing in painstaking detail how I was, during the ’88-’89 season, officially and mathematically the worst basketball player in America. Morty wouldn’t mind if I pulled that one out of the attic. He’d laugh and pound the table. He’d call me Joshua. Our voices would get quiet. I’d show him a picture of my son.