Friday, February 04, 2005

There's No Free Lunch

There’s No Free Lunch, Unless You’re Freddy Fishkin
Excerpt from essay to be published in OPEN TRENCH, by Don Cummings

Freddy Fishkin, as we all know, is the prototype retiree who lives in Florida after years of hard work. Freddy drove a cab in the Sixties, opened a pool hall with his brother in The Bronx in the Seventies which raked in cash into the eighties, was fiscally ransacked (read: secretly plundered) by both Freddy and his brother in the nineties (and probably in the eighties and seventies), sold to some other scrappy guys and still operates today with the occasional payout to Freddy. Freddy, who no longer speaks with his brother, took his cash which he worked so hard to earn and to steal, moved it from a few cold safety deposit drawers in New York to a couple warm safety deposit drawers in Florida and there he sits with his wife aging, eating, growing eye tags, playing golf and ultimately wallowing in bliss as his life comes to an unChristian end in an entertainment oriented housingplex along the alligator infested canals that feed into the Everglades.

At Christmastime, one can find oneself at their parent’s home in Florida. People arrive on the white tile. Their coats are put in the coat closet. They have a drink poured for them. They are all wretchedly ashamed of growing old. This group of Americans helped to make the world what it is today. They took the inconvenient swamps, deserts, woods, hills and plains and thankfully helped us all in our navigation by covering them over with asphalt, gas stations, theme parks, and fast food chains. So, instead of having to face nature and its hazards, we face greasy roads and their promise of access to anything we want to consume. Anything. It is not the fault of these people. It was the only game in town. My heart goes out to the destroyer as well as the destroyed. But what is great news is, Freddy destroyed nothing. He bought a pool hall, sold a pool hall, made cash while he owned the pool hall, lost his relationship to his brother while he stole from the pool hall, and has fond memories of being king, if only for three decades, of his own business. This is a great thing. He built nothing. Destroyed nothing. Was guardian to those who needed pool. He served alcohol. He employed people. Great news. Now listen. I don’t want to get all Babbit on you, but this guy, this Jew, who put cash above all else only did so because he had no other choice. Things cost money. And you work hard for those things. You steal hard for those things and if you are very lucky the prize at the end is Florida.

Freddy won. Freddy sent his kids to state schools and received enormous aid from the state as his children, on paper, were paupers. Freddy saved money on utilities because someone taught Freddy how to disconnect his meter. Freddy made deals with alcoholics with huge bar tabs, erasing their debt for hockey tickets. Freddy, poor little wall-eyed Freddy from the lower East Side of Manhattan, made good. And I can tell you this, Freddy was not the only one.

Just ten miles outside of Boca, heading east toward the gators, are large warehouses loaded with tractors, fertilizer, auto parts, plastic sheets and disposable diapers. In these warehouses are the workers that move these things from here to there, count them, pack them, carry them and send them to a shopping plex near you. They work hard and they are paid minimally yet livable wages. Just outside these warehouses are homes. Small shacks in little neighborhoods made of weeds poking out of sand and concrete held together by grids of tar roads that burn the feet of lizards and children. And just outside these grids is just sand and weeds and boxes with no tar at all. No workers. Just some hungry people who can’t get jobs or are too drunk to get jobs or too old to get jobs or just stupid enough to have never worked. These people, for their own reasons, are literally on the fringe of society, sitting in boxes or under old sheets until they are asked to move and they go to other vacant areas where they set up their boxes or sheets so they can stay out of the sun for the day.

Now, there are those without homes and those with small homes. Some live within the grid, some live outside the grid. And though the ones with homes are better off than the ones without, the two things they all have in common are:
1) They don’t have a safety deposit box filled with cash
2) They are hungry

And, luckily, because we do not live in a completely heartless society, there are missions of folks, both government funded and privately funded who offer the thing that so many people desire: They give a free lunch. And these hungry people, workers and non workers, home owners and non home owners walk over, at about noon, to the place they know where today’s mission will be. And they feel ashamed. And they are hot and sweaty from working or sitting. And they are scared that one day they will not be able to walk there or that the food won’t show up because of a bad tropical storm. But they go there every day for their free lunch. They go every day because if they can count on nothing else in this world, they can count on one thing and one thing only which puts them in a parallel universe to the rest of Americans. They are getting a free lunch.

Freddy found out about this free lunch one day while sitting at the country club. He had finished nine holes of golf. It was July and even though he started playing at 6AM, the golf course was unfit to be played upon by 9AM. The temperature ran into the hundreds and the golf carts weren’t charged properly the night before so they gave out by 8AM. Freddy abandoned his compatriots, took a flabby shower, went to the bar and ordered a gingerale. Freddy doesn’t expect to pay for gingerale since it is not alcohol and the bartender understands this and doesn’t ask for payment. The bartender is supposed to put it on his tab, according to the rules of the management, however, the bartender receives a decent tip each year in late December, not at all large, but decent from Freddy and that tip would be put in jeopardy if Freddy found gingerale on his printout at the end of the month. So, Freddy drinks free sodas and is justified since he also spends good money at the country club on food and golf. The gingerale is his birthright perk.

On this very hot day, when Freddy abandoned his nonworking cart on the green, he ordered his free gingerale, sat down, and noticed the local paper sitting on a table that had already been abandoned by some diners. He took the paper so he could turn to the stock pages. Having been able to slowly trickle his cash reserves into stocks as the years have worn on, Freddy was very interested in Intel, Cisco, Microsoft and Merck. Freddy peeled through sections of the paper. Freddy put the front section to the side. Something about Arabs. Something about fire. He put the local section to the side. Something about missing children. Something about a shooting. But then there were no more sections. Someone made off with the stock section. How? How does that happen? Freddy reached for the paper. Freddy acquired the paper. Freddy turned to the section to find how his stocks were doing and that section wasn’t there.

Freddy asked for a refill for his gingerale. The bartender glinted and agreed and took the soda hose and pressed G and Freddy’s glass was refilled. What to do now? Go home? Look at the paper? Why should he look at the paper? The section he wanted was gone. But he didn’t want to go home. It was too early and his wife was not yet back from her card game. What would he do now? While thinking about his dilemma, he noticed a familiar face in the room. Not living, but a photo, on the newspaper in grainy color. It was the face of an old friend, Harry Wermeyer, who was being indicted for heading a cartel of envelope manufacturers. In fact, Harry had moved to Florida just one year ago but was already back in New York at the hands of justice for his bad business ways. The article, stating the place, cause, time, money made and effect of the crime continued to the back page of the newspaper. Freddy finished reading the article, chortled over his good luck for never having been caught, and with unusual completion read to the last period of the article right down to the bottom of the page to a boxed square with simple type of no more than 16 pica font with the title: “Free Lunch” Now there’s something that caught his eye.

He looked around to make sure there was no one next to him or behind him as he tore the box from the rest of the paper, then tossed the paper into a bus tray making sure the paper landed in pancakes and coffee insuring a mess with no possible trace of Freddy’s involvement. Lunch started in a half hour. Freddy got one more refill of soda, the bartender, being tall and handsome and disappointed in his own life, thought about murder as Freddy went off to the bathroom to relieve himself of the first two glasses of gingerale.

Standing in the toilet stall, Freddy, who hadn’t peed at a urinal since 1959 when an odd gentleman pawed him in the Yonkers Raceway men’s room, finished his business, remembering how it takes longer than it did ten years ago due to age and will, and he stood there, unencumbered from his golf trousers, and stared at the address for the Free Lunch. It was only a fifteen minute drive and certainly it would be an adventure.

He peeked in the mirror to make sure his eyebrows weren’t tufted upward. He thinks that is the oldest look for a man. His left brow was starting to flip a bit, so he pushed it down with his right index finger, looked at only his eyes and the bridge of his nose, avoiding the lower nose, cheeks, mouth and chin. All those things had changed too much over the years. They took up more space and they moved south. His eyes were still clear, no signs of cataracts, but the edges of his irises were starting to leach into watery lines flowing outwardly into his sclera. No bother, there was still a spark there. And Freddy was hungry.

His Lexus, silver, sparkly, metallic, like a teenaged girl covered with glotion, sat there as a trophy to his life of hard work. It was only a year old and everyone knew it. And if someone didn’t know it, he told them. Just as he was about to slather into his luxury sedan, Mona Weidman pulled up, rolled down the window and put her foot on the brake long enough to say “Your wife’s a cunt. And I don’t want to talk about it.” Mona tore off in her Camry, hitting the edge of the arched pointed curb that was protecting the queen palms that held sway over the parking lot. The Camry, like Mona’s ass, could take a solid beating with nary a rim getting bent out of shape. The warranty insists upon it in both cases.

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