What? The beer can on the bookcase? There’s a funny story behind that beer can. Well, maybe not that funny. Someone gave it to me when I lived in Rego Park, Queens, on the same street where Kitty Genovese was murdered. That was the first one where neighbors just listened and watched. I always meant to find the exact spot where she was killed, but never got around to it.
I lived there the winter we had 17 snowstorms in New York. It was like the 12th or 13th storm. I’d gone through one shovel already. That afternoon I bought another at the hardware store. Last one in stock, the guy claimed. Charged me 45 bucks for a crappy, warped snow shovel. I didn’t notice the long, think crack up the shaft until I was halfway to the car. I started back to the swindler, but stopped. Actually I slipped, fell, and the shovel hit me on the head. I’m not superstitious, but I took it as a sign for some reason, and pivoted back to my car.
It was parked five blocks from my apartment. The plows had come by all day and swept the 20-inch snow plop against every car. All the cars looked like igloos. My igloo was parked in front of one of those two-family jobs – the ones built in the ’40s for the veterans returning from Europe and Asia – squat brick shelters with no lawns, a driveway for one car for either family.
It was early dark when I got to my car. Painfully cold. It felt like sandpaper rubbed against your skin. Some guy was standing in the driveway of the house near where my car was parked. He was rocking from one foot to another, smoking a cigarette. I figured he was waiting for someone to pick him up, but it seemed like he’d been there a long time. And he wasn’t dressed right, just a dark, thin windbreaker, and no gloves on. He looked in his late 40s, but it was hard to tell in the dark.
We sized each other up for a moment. I guess we decided neither one of us posed a threat to the other. So I turned my attention to the car. Only the busted headlight shown through the snow, which is how I knew it was my car in the first place.
I grabbed a handful of snow off the hood, packed it into an icy ball and idly launched it. When it hit the street it shattered like glass. I didn’t look but I knew the guy was still staring at me, still, I guess, summing me up.
I tottered to the back of the car, dug my boots in and lifted a fat cake of snow with my trusty, busted, 45-buck shovel, and flung the snow to where I surmised the sidewalk was. It was a tiny dent in the immense igloo. Pitiful. I took a deep breath and grunted another shovelful into the air. I had two tiny dents. The second was considerably less denty than the first. A minute passed. Maybe another. I was up to nine dents. A bit of exhaust pipe and a swath of tire peeked out.
“Do you speak Russian?”
Sometimes you just know someone’s going to say something to you. I looked up.
“Do you speak Russian?” he gestured with his cigarette. He was still standing in the driveway.
“No,” I breathed.
“No problem, no problem,” and he put his cigarette between his lips and advanced on me like a soldier.
“I don’t have any money to give you,” I said hoping to discourage him, though I probably could have thrown him a buck or two.
“No problem,” he said, and grabbed the shovel from my hands. He started digging incredibly fast, with the concentration and energy that reminded me of that folklore hero, what’s his name, the black guy who hammered faster than the steam drill? John Henry, right. Anyway, he flung bales of snow into the cleared road. It was amazing. I stood back to get a good look at him. He was more like mid-30s at the most, but a face that had weathered badly: Bony with a weekend’s gray stubble. He had a small mouth. But his face slid towards it and his words squeezed out through this tube of a mouth. His nose was long with a bump in the middle. He was wearing a flannel shirt beneath the windbreaker, the tail sticking out. He must have been freezing.
Each airborne cargo of snow he tossed burst like sparklers through the headlights of a nearby idling car. Cigarette smoke and breath billowed from his mouth as he plowed a deep trench alongside the driver side of the car. In less than ten minutes the car was nearly dugout.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you, but I can do the rest.”
He strode to the back of the car.
“You don’t have to shovel anymore. Thank you very much, but I can do the rest. Thank you. You really helped me.”
He stopped, lit another cigarette. Took a drag.
“Do you drink beer?” he said.
“Yeah, sometimes.” Where the hell are we going now? I began to believe he was seriously off-key. I took the shovel from his hand and started shoveling, pathetically slow, like playing a 45 record at 33-and-a-3rd. He pivoted around and marched back to the driveway. When he got to the spot where he’d been standing, he bent down to a duffel bag. I hadn’t noticed the duffel bag before. He unzipped it, removed two cans and walked back to the car.
I took it in my gloved hand. Black Label Beer. That’s right, the one on the bookcase.
“Thanks,” I said now totally confused. I looked at him and tried smiling broadly to show him I appreciated his hospitality. How often does one get a beer pushed into ones hand by a total stranger right after a blizzard? Think about it. I didn’t know the proper etiquette. Miss Manners would have been stumped by the occasion.
I did the logical thing—I pushed the can into the snow on the car roof and resumed digging.
“Drink now before work,” he commanded.
I smiled nervously. “OK.” He obviously knew the proper etiquette.
Some people would not have accepted the beer, but I knew I was safe. He wasn’t going to kill me or rob me. He was just some poor dolt wanting to share a beer on a snow-frozen night with a total stranger. It was odd, but not dangerous. I removed the can from the snow, popped the top. He held out his can of Black Label for a toast and we clicked aluminum beer cans in the freezing air. I raised the can to my lips. I could fake drinking it. No, better drink it, at least one sip. The beer was warm. How could it be warm in this cold? He must have stationed himself in the driveway just before I came. Otherwise the beer would have to be cold by now.
“Do you live here?” I pointed behind him. He turned and stared at the house, stared a long while as if for the last time. The porch light was on and I could see the door clearly. It was painted red and had this octagonal beveled glass window.
“I lived here with my wife.”
“Oh, you live here with your wife,” I corrected his grammar.
“My wife and me,” and he put his hands together tautly. I didn’t understand what that meant.
“My wife and me…” he repeated, searching. Then he turned and spit on the snow.
Things began to dawn on me.
“Oh. Your wife and you split?” I put my hands together tautly like he had and pulled them apart.
“Yes,” he said, pushing out a sharp, grim laugh.
“No problem,” he shrugged. I make 10 dollars for hour six days for week, but no good for wife.”
“That’s good money.”
“But no good for wife. She crazy.” And he rolled his eyes and spun a finger near his head. I guess that means crazy in Russian too.
“You make better money than I make,” I said. It wasn’t true but I figured he’d like to hear it.
“You Spanish or Portuguese?” he asked.
“I’m from here.”
“You from New York? You American?”
“What you do this?” he pointed down at the shovel, meaning performing manual labor. “You American, you have money,” and he rubbed his fingertips together.
“I don’t have money.”
“All Americans have money. I have money. Ten dollars for hour. I have money, but no good for wife. Give me telephone number I get you job,” he said, miming writing my number on his hand.
“I have a job.”
“I get you better job.”
The front door to the house cracked open and out stuck a head. The door opened more and a squat, elderly woman emerged slowly from the house and waddled out to the driveway. She wore a headscarf, and a dark button-down sweater over a housedress, but no stockings. Her bare legs were stocky and varicose laced. She stood in the driveway with her arms folded, staring at us, never saying a word. She looked like she had spent much of her life waiting on line.
The man turned to me and said in a voice loud enough for the woman to hear:
“That is sister of my wife. She…” He shook his head, didn’t finish the sentence. He turned to her but didn’t acknowledge her. She stared back with an inscrutable expression. She was much older than the man. I wondered if in fact she was his mother-in-law.
“You live in apartment?” he asked.
“I live down the street,” I said.
“Can I stay with you?”
“Did you? You just broke up with your wife tonight, this very night?” I said. The guy’s predicament finally came into sharp focus.
“Yes, yes, no problem. You have extra bed?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have an extra bed,” I lied. “You were just kicked out tonight? Where were you going to stay?”
“Tomorrow I go to friend’s house in Brooklyn.”
“But tonight—where were you going to stay tonight? It’s freezing out.”
“Tonight I no know.” He finished his beer and threw the empty can onto the snow
near a tree. I’d taken only two swigs from my beer and pushed it into the snow on the hood of the car again and resumed shoveling.
“Please, please, no problem, no problem,” he said, and took the shovel from my hands again. I didn’t resist. I needed my car dug out and he needed to dig it out.
Some guy stopped his car in front of us and gave two sharp honks because the Russian was blocking the road. He straightened up and motioned for the car to pass.
“No problem,” he yelled. The driver spun his wheels, and fishtailed passed the Russian missing him by a foot.
I started to clear the windshield with an ice scraper and he stopped digging and with his bare hands helped clear the windshield with me.
“I’m from Siberia,” he said showing me his thick, calloused hands as if to explain why freezing snow had no effect on them. Then he asked me my name. I glanced up at his house. The sister/mother-in-law had disappeared back inside. I like to think I would have been noble if I had seen that guy stabbing Kitty Genovese, would have done something. And though this fellow posed no threat to me, had in fact been quite kind, and though I knew, in all likelihood, I would never see him again, I lied once more. I don’t even remember what name I told him. He thrust out his hand trusting me.
“Alex,” he said.
I removed my glove and shook his hand reluctantly. His was warm, sweaty. It surrounded mine. I tried to pull my hand away from his, but he insisted on holding it an extra beat. His eyes zeroed in on me. I dropped my gaze to the snow and tried desperately to extricate my hand and life from him.