It’s a biting twenty degrees on Friday night on Atlantic Avenue off Henry Steet. I’m heading nowhere in particular, i.e., I’ve nowhere to go. From between two cars emerges a short and stout man, stuffed in a green military jacket, who looks like the Iron Sheik wearing Nikola Volkoff’s fur hat. He’s waving me down.
– Excuse me, excuse me, where is car service?
– I don’t know.
– Car service.
He leans in, with mustachioed gravity.
– I need to get home.
I point at the gas station on corner.
– How do you feel about taxis? You can probably find a taxi at the gas station since we’re right off the highway. Or the attendant can call a car service for you.
Squinting, the man’s eyes follow my finger and his head turns and snaps back immediately, bringing a grimace with it.
– No gas station. I need car service.
– I’m sorry, I can’t help you.
– You know? Car service. You a Chinese, right?
– Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I know where the car service is.
– No, no. You are Chinese. The Chinese are so polite. Do you know? How are you so polite?
– I don’t know.
I start to walk away and he takes that as an invitation to take a stroll with me.
– How are things in China? How are the people?
– Not good. That’s why they’re here.
– Ack, these Americans. You are polite. You show me the respect. I give you the respect.
He stops short and points at my chest.
– Look at you. Look…your tie. You are so polite. Be careful with the tie.
And then he whispers:
– Which way is the Fourth Avenue?
I point east.
– Just keeping going down Atlantic Avenue and you’ll get to Fourth Avenue. It’s after some streets with proper names, and then it’s Third Avenue and then Fourth.
– I don’t need your knowledge. I need to get to the Fourth Avenue. Ah, I was walking the wrong way. Where is the Atlantic Avenue?
– We’re on Atlantic Avenue.
– You are so polite. Come, come. Atlantic Avenue is so great. I can get a drink here and here and there…
He walks ahead of me and then stands frozen in front of a bar. I break the silence with a reckless question.
– Do you want go?
– No. No, no.
Shaking his head, he continues walking, and I follow.
– I wish my son was like you. You give the respect. My mother…she just died…my mother.
– I’m sorry.
– No sorry. I am a bad man. It is okay. No sorry. It was her time. My mother…she was from Arabia. You know? Middle East. She was not herself anymore.
This is followed by an unintelligible drunken slur which ends when he stops in front of a Middle Eastern restaurant with greetings in Arabic, I presume, on the front door.
– Ah! My language!
He proceeds to recite it to me in his mother’s tongue, wistfully. I don’t ask him what it means.
– You should go in. They’ll call a car service for you.
– No…no, they would not like me.
He stomps away. I match his pace.
– I am alone. You know? This time of year is tough. Look at all these people. With the families. Holidays. Happy. Happiness.
He dips his head and out of the corner of his heavy mouth he asks:
– Where is the Fourth Avenue?
I point east on Atlantic Avenue, like before.
– I keep going?
– Yeah, just keep walking that way.
– Good, good. I need to go home.
We stop at the corner of the block. He turns to me, palms pressed delicately together in prayer. He closes his eyes. Takes a deep breath. He bends forward into a deep bow.
– You are so polite. Thank you. Thank you.
– No problem.
– I go now. Thank you.
He bows deeply again. I wave goodbye as he staggers off, staring at the pavement, trying to find Fourth Avenue. Trying to find home.