The Bittersweet Ballad of Uncle Jim, Part One: “Kooky, But Not Too Kooky”
A few weeks ago when I originally posted about Afro Baby I promised there would be something about “Uncle Jim” in the near future. And honestly, I’ve purposely been putting it off. There really wasn’t much of a story outside of his expletive-ridden rants and drunken antics. He curses in such a way that even I feel uncomfortable posting it here, despite the fact that I may be unintelligent, ignorant, and small-minded (I’m sorry! I couldn’t resist… no hard feelings?). But my most recent encounter with the man has convinced me that Uncle Jim’s story has been left untold for far too long. This is a long one, but I think the payoff at the end will be well worth it. I might be so bold to say that it’s a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. So without further ado, for the first time ever, the untold tale of Uncle Jim…
It’s been awhile since I was up early enough, but Uncle Jim is a regular fixture on our stoop in the morning. I guess it’s his favorite place to take a cigarette break during his can collecting forays through the Bronx. He looks mild-mannered enough. If you didn’t know any better, Jim might seem like the father of a Fordham student in town for a football game or dinner on Arthur Ave. Simply sporting a maroon Fordham cap, gray hoodie, and dark jeans, he’s easy to ignore at first. It’s after your second glance that you notice how ragged his clothes actually are, and if you had any lingering doubts about his origin, then wait until he smiles. The teeth he still has are crooked and yellow, framed by a grin that flirts with maniacal. His eyes are the other feature that will tip you off. No matter the hour, day or night, his eyes are wide-open, and their glossiness somehow matches the color of his teeth. The sum of these features is reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat, hovering bodiless with a mischievous smile. Except this is the Bronx; and we all know that Wonderland it ain’t.
“Hey! How ya doing? I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Uncle Jim,” was his mirthful reaction when I first tried to step over him as I exited my apartment one morning. I know that after a few years in the city you’re supposed to be an expert at avoiding eye contact and walking away quickly, but damn was this guy friendly. Besides, if he was going to profit off of our hard work as diligent producers of empty beer cans, then I might as well meet the guy (Wow… I kind of am insensitive). I simply replied nice to meet you, and thus began my relationship with Uncle Jim. Our initial conversations were never that out of the ordinary. He seemed genuinely interested in things like what I was studying and even tried to offer advice at times, but I knew even then that he was something of a wild card. If you get a chance to talk to him, you’ll soon discover that he believes himself to be the ultimate party animal. All of his stories revolve around some crazy stunt he pulled back in the day. If I had to guess I’d say they were 50% bullshit, but I assure you they’re 100% entertaining. He’s an animated guy, often stopping mid-sentence to demonstrate what he’s talking about- “And then she bent over just like this and starts waving at me! You know what I did? I clapped for her! Bravo, I says, bravo!” – he plays every character and he plays them well. His fidgety nature, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and rapid-fire storyteller come together to give off the impression of a worldly, and shockingly charismatic, spinner of yarns. This is one hell of a stretch, but it was as if Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty had been allowed to live too long and fade into obscurity in the Bronx. For a brief period, I actually looked forward to an Uncle Jim encounter. At best he was a fascinating storyteller, and at worst he still contributed to that “authentic neighborhood charm” you hear so much about. Besides, he seemed harmless enough, just a down on his luck guy willing to shoot the shit with whoever would listen. I was under the impression his partying days were over, but it was something he told Sweater Kid that foreshadowed the Uncle Jim we would come to know and um… not love: “Listen,” Uncle Jim told him, “I’m kooky, but not too kooky.”
We know now that he was lying. He’s one kooky motherfucker.
My pleasant early morning encounters with Uncle Jim continued throughout the summer whenever I was up early enough. It wasn’t until a couple weeks into this semester that I ran into Jim at night. After the sun goes down, Uncle Jim switches gears from mildly creepy conversationalist to full-on creepy belligerent. He spotted my roommates and I one night as we left for Tribar. That evening he had donned an ill-fitting, dirty t-shirt and some torn-up cargo shorts. He approached us like we were old friends. He tottered back and forth, but his eyes remained fixated me and my roommates. It was then that we realized what he was spending his recycling money on: booze. Now, in the interest of giving this blog some semblance of decency I’ll paraphrase, but he told me in no uncertain terms that he was interested in meeting some ladies that night. Not wishing that upon anyone, I told him that I couldn’t help him and tried to walk away. He had obviously already had quite a bit to drink and pursued the issue further until he just lost it. “Fuck man!” he started screaming, “Tell me where to find it! Let me come with you guys!” We left him on the stoop, swearing his head off between fits of deranged laughter. We could still hear him as we turned the corner. I’m seriously understating it here when I say that my roommates and I were left feeling a little uncomfortable. We brushed it off and went on, and after a couple hours we had completely forgotten about him. Later in the night I ran back to my apartment to avoid waiting for the Mugz bathroom or something. Uncle Jim was still sitting on the stoop, much calmer, but unwilling to let me by without a word. After a brief confrontation wherein he insisted that I not only let him into my apartment, but roll him a joint and party with him some more, I was able to sidestep him and get inside. Things had gotten out of hand.
In an instant, Uncle Jim had gone from zany neighborhood personality to disturbed alcoholic that unfortunately thinks my roommates and I are his buds. Needless to say, the morning encounters with the guy became a little bit awkward, at least on my end. I really don’t think that he remembered any of it (In retrospect, I don’t think he ever knows who he’s talking to), but I was too creeped out. He was obviously way more troubled than I had originally thought. This went on for awhile; uncomfortable hello’s in the morning, and extremely uncomfortable run-ins at night. He was the same guy during the day, but when drunk, he was loud, insistent, and unpredictable. Like every other semester, I eventually lost the will to keep getting up early or try very hard, so my number of Uncle Jim experiences dropped significantly. Then he flat out disappeared. Nobody saw him for weeks, day or night.
Until yesterday that is. I woke up early because of the construction outside my window and decided to take advantage of the gorgeous day with a jog. I was only a few steps down Hughes, looking at my iPod, when I heard the clinking of metal against metal. I glanced up instinctively, and lo and behold, there was Uncle Jim and his bag of cans. It’s not a problem, I thought, I already have headphones in. I tried to move past him as quickly as possible, but he stopped right next to me waving hello. And honestly I don’t know why I did it, but I did. I stopped and said, “How’ve you been, Jim?” I think it was how particularly haggard he looked that kept me there. I guess I just assumed that he had found another street with a more plentiful bounty of recycling, but now I’m not so sure. Jim has lost quite a bit of weight, and his face is much more sallow. Before, I had never been able to tell how old he was. He couldn’t have looked much older than 50, but given what I know now about his lifestyle, he could be a younger guy who had seen too much living. But what really threw me off was the way he acted. He could never sit still before. I never thought I would pair this word with Uncle Jim, but I’d go as far as saying that he was vibrant. Yesterday was different. He was waving, but his enthusiasm was gone. His eyes were just as wide, but his mouth just hung around his face; gone was the twisted and mischievous grin. “Oh you know,” he started, “I’ve been around, busy.” I decided to press him a bit further. I knew that I might be reopening a door that really shouldn’t be opened, but I couldn’t help it. I really felt bad for the guy.
Eventually he livened up a bit and started jabbering on. He still wasn’t quite the same. We went over the usual subjects: I told him my major (again), that I’m not originally from the Bronx (again), and that yes, I do think Fordham girls are pretty (again). I can’t recall how we got to the subject, but it was then that Uncle Jim told me the ultimate Uncle Jim story. “Have you ever been to Europe?” he asked. I told him yes, once when I was little and I didn’t really remember much. “Have you?” was the automatic response that came out of my mouth next. His face perked up and his eyes started to glow like they used to. His mouth twisted back into that old grin, and honest to god, he threw his bag of cans against the nearest building. This was the Uncle Jim I remembered. ” Yeah, I been to Europe heh heh,” his voice was shaking with excitement, “Let me ask you something… you ever hearda the Bulgarian nudist beachs?” “Um no… no I haven’t.”
Betrayal! Intrigue! Hitler’s Secret Bunker! All that and more next week in “The Bittersweet Ballad of Uncle Jim, Part Two: Uncle Jim’s European Vacation.” Don’t miss it!
Hope you were all enjoyed that, or at the very least read the whole thing. Now, in response to a couple of criticisms of my blog from last class: It seems like people liked the overall design of the blog, but didn’t like that all of the posts were on separate pages. I don’t think I can change that with this theme. Personally, I really like this theme, and I think with all the graphics I use that it’s better that posts have their own pages. But I would definitely be willing to change it if it really seems to take away from your experience. Let me know in da comments box, yo. And let me know what you think is going to happen to our hero!