So much for Jimmy.
Pietro Massinello was a circus of one, allowed, like the others, to move his feast of dogs, cats, geese, and parakeets from the roof, where they lived in summer, to a basement lumber room in December, where they survived in a medley of barks, cackles, riots, and slumbers through the years. You could see him running along Los Angeles streets with his herd of adoring beasts in his wake, the dogs frisking, a bird on each shoulder, a duck pursuing, as he toted a portable windup phonograph which he set down at street corners to play Tales from the Vienna Woods and dance his dogs for whatever people threw him. He was a tiny man with bells on his hat, black mascara around his wide innocent mad eyes, and chimes sewn on his cuffs and lapels. He did not speak to people, he sang.
The sign outside his lean-to basement lumber room read MANGER, and love filled the place, the love of beautifully treated and petted and spoiled animals for their incredible master.
So much for Pietro Massinello.
Henry, the blind colored man, was even more special. Special because he not only spoke clean and clear, but walked without canes through our lives and survived when the others had gone, without trumpets, off in the night.
He was waiting for me when I came in the downstairs entrance to the tenement.
He was waiting for me in the dark, hid back against the wall, his face so black it was unseen.
It was his eyes, blind but white rimmed, which startled me.
I jumped and gasped.
“Henry. Is that you?”
“Scare you, did I?” Henry smiled, then remembered why he was there. “I been waiting on you,” he said, lowering his voice, looking around as if he could actually see the shadows.
“Something wrong, Henry?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Things is changing. The old place ain’t the same. People is nervous. Even me.”
I saw his right hand fumble down in the dark to touch and twitch a peppermint-striped cane. I had never seen him carry a cane before. My eye ran down to the tip, which was rounded with what looked to be a good weight of lead. It was not a blind man’s guide. It was a weapon.
“Henry,” I whispered.
And we stood for a moment while I looked him over and saw what had always been there.
He had everything memorized. In his pride he had counted and could recall every pace in this block and the next and the next, and how many steps across at this intersection or that. And he could name the streets he strode past, with sovereign certainty, by the butcher or shoeshine or drugstore or poolhall smokes and smells. And even when the shops were shut, he would “see” the kosher pickle scents or the boxed tobaccos, or the locked-away African ivory aromas of the billiard balls in their nests, or the aphrodisiac whiff from the gas station when some tank flooded, and Henry walking, staring straight ahead, no dark glasses, no cane, his mouth counting the beats, to turn in at Al’s Beer and walk steadily and unswervingly through the crowded tables toward an empty piano stool, there to sit and reach up for the beer that was automatically popped in place by Al before his arrival, to play exactly three tunes, including the “Maple Leaf” sadly better than Cal the barber, drink the one beer, and stride out into a night he owned with his paces and counts, heading home, calling out to unseen voices, naming names, proud of his shuttered genius, only his nose steering the way and his legs firm and muscled from ten miles of strides per day.
If you tried to help him across the street, which I made the mistake of doing once, he yanked his elbow away and stared at you so angrily that your face burned.
“Don’t touch,” he whispered. “Don’t confuse. You put me off now. Where was I?” He threw some abacus beads in his dark head. He counted cornrows on his skull. “Yeah. Now. Thirty-five across, thirty-seven over.” And on he went alone, leaving you on the curb, his own parade, thirty-five steps across Temple this way, and thirty-seven the other, across Figueroa. An invisible cane tapped cadence for him. He marched, by God, he truly marched.
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