by Ron Singer
I must of seen this guy hundreds of times, but I still can’t believe him. First of all, he isn’t a dwarf or a midget (I think there’s a difference), but no way he’s over four-foot-something –closer to four than five. And he’s not bulked up, or anything, but sturdy, a fireplug. What could he weigh, one-ten, one-twenty? Gray hair, thick, definitely not a rug. Age, forty-five, fifty? Till maybe a month ago, clean-shaven, but then (I shit you not) he grows himself a little pussy tickler, also gray! Not to toot my own horn, but I notice stuff like that.
Another thing I also can’t believe is, he seems to wear practically the same uniform every single day of the year, throughout the four seasons. I guess the garage pays the dry cleaning, and they give him several sets of uniforms: white shirt, black pants, shoes, red tie, all tiny. In the warmer months, the shirt has short sleeves, in colder, long. In spring and fall, they add a black cap and windbreaker, and in winter, gloves, hat (with ear flaps) and parka, also black. The shirt, coat, jacket, cap and hat all have a red logo in large squiggly letters: “ATLAS PARKING,” the name of the garage. And, finally, they provide the guy with a big red flag that looks like it’s attached to his hand. He waves the flag so hard I can’t understand why it does not shred or why the stick does not break. No, he doesn’t “wave it,” he snaps it. They must replace the flag at least once a month, it always looks new. And he never shouts to would-be customers, just tries to snap them down to the garage (underground). Since the traffic on that particular block usually crawls, those drivers seeking one of the non-existent parking spots on the street have plenty of time to decide to end their misery by springing for the garage.
Who is this strange-looking little dude? Until a couple months ago, his guyrations with the flag made me think it could be a mistake to try and chat him up (although I sometimes do converse with strangers). Because, frankly, he looked like a nutcase! Plus the foot traffic on the sidewalk in front of the ramp down to the garage is so heavy you feel like you better plunge your car right into any opening before the pushy pedestrians clog it up again. (“He who hesitates…”) And, on my way back up the ramp, I’m usually anxious to get to the worksite, since I’m usually late.
You see, I was in possession of a monthly parking pass for this place, which is why I seen the guy so much –every day for ten, eleven months. The space set me back three-and-a-half c’s per month, which (I shit you not) is a real bargain for this area. Anyways, I make good money, and I’ll pay anything to avoid the fuckin’ subway ride back and forth to my home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn –“BR.” Why do I hate the subway so much? Don’t ask! But I’ll tell you this much, it takes maybe an hour each way –on good days.
Recently, however, I finally decided to stop for a mo’ on the way back up the ramp, after handing over my keys to one of the “African-Americans” who park the cars –and collect the tips. See, I overslept that day, so I didn’t reach the city till ten, ten-thirty. To my surprise, however, when I come trudging back up the ramp, the flagman was temporarily idle. He looked like he was maybe waiting for the next wave of cars. Or else by then, all the cars that were coming in were in already, and he was just waiting to be informed that his morning’s work was over and he could go home to, I assume, his little house and little family for five, six hours (depending on where he lives), till it was time for the cars to be flagged back out and carry their drivers off to their own homes (which I notice a lot of them are in Jersey).
Anyways, last month, my chinwag with the flagman finally occurred, on Monday, July 14th, to be exact, the day after the World Cup final (Germany 1, Argentina 0). Since the Cup was a ready-made topic of conversation, and since I was already late and he was free, I decided to engage him in a brief exchange of views. Actually, I did it just to hear what the guy who had been flagging me in and out of the garage all those days, weeks, and months sounded like. It makes me uncomfortable to see some person three hundred times without so much as a “Hey, how you doin’?” (Not that I am ignorant of what curiosity done to the cat.)
“Some game yesterday, eh?”
“Wass no good. Who care? Was shit game!”
Well, well. His voice was high-pitched and nasal, with an accent I couldn’t place, maybe Latino. Was he a Mex or Platano (i.e. Dominican)? Probably not an Argentine, however. I say this because men from Argentina, at least judging from the Cup, seem to mostly range from medium to tall. Or maybe he was from Eastern Europe, one of those former Commie shitholes.
“Well, the Germans played great,” I replied, determining to pull his chain a little. “Too bad Messi had such a bad day.” I heard it said that Lionel Messi, who may be the world’s best player (and five-seven), was seen puking before the final. I don’t know if this is a fact, and maybe he pukes before every game, but Lionel did look “peeked,” or something, without his usual amazing flash. Anyways, as I was saying all this crap to the flagger, I could see from his face that he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. We could of been from different planets.
He just kept shaking his head, with the big flag drooped next to his right knee. By now, his face was a blank, but still with undertones of anger. As I said, although he was obviously p.o.’d at the outcome of the game, I didn’t think he was an Argentinian. (I hear a lot of people from the other –excuse me– spic nations hate the Argentines.) Who knows, maybe he dropped a few shekels on the game. Anyways, I said no more, I just walked away, waving back over my shoulder as I headed for the worksite –-another new luxury condo building, my third in the past three years.
In case you’re wondering, my specific job entails grunt work –hauling cement and other shit, hosing down the site, whatever. To tell the truth, I don’t have any real skills. My only asset is my strength, which, however (if I may say so, myself), is considerable. As the end of a shift approaches, in mid-afternoon, I’ll still be hopping on and off the truck beds, while the college boys are bent over clasping their knees and sucking wind. (I refer to the summer employees, many of who are the boss’s relations.)
Actually, to tell the truth, I was sucking wind myself that day, because I was still half-wasted from the World Cup bash the day before. Which was like a wake, anyways, since by then the U.S. was history. I wonder if there are studies indicating who drinks and eats more, fans whose teams are still alive, or those who are not. Anyways, in the two, three hours the final took (counting the two fifteen-minute overtime periods), I must of put away a whole package single-handed (“Sadder, Bud Wiser”), plus maybe five pounds of food: cold cuts, bread, potato salad, pie, cake, candy, chips, and so forth. But let’s not go there, my heartburn will recur.
Three days after my chitchat with the flagman –it was Thursday, by then– I was eating lunch with the boys on the stoop adjacent to the worksite. This stoop belongs to a very fancy building, a four-story brick townhouse. The only time we ever see the owners is around 8:30, when we would be having our ten-minute, stand-up, first coffee break out in front of the site. Most days, two young suits carrying computer bags, both of them males, come hopping down the steps, not making eye contact, or anything. Since they never lock the gate behind them, later on, at half-past eleven, we seat ourselves in our “reserved lunchroom” –their stoop– although I, for one, would guess these guys are the type who might get snippy if they knew we ate lunch on their property every day.
I will say that we leave no litter, however –not a single bit. Have you ever noticed how construction grunts never leave litter? If I was to hazard a guess as to “why,” it would be because, after we work like a bitch erecting a new structure, we want the work area to remain pristine –at least until the job is finished and our backs are turned! In fact, when I see a person spitting out their gum on a sidewalk our men have recently laid, I have to stop myself from charging after the person and cold-cocking him. (Of course, I would not cold-cock a female, I’m not that big an asshole.)
I wonder if the guy couple we see every morning own the whole building or are just renters. My guess is the former, since that building does not have the look of being broken up into separate units. I can’t put my finger on the exact difference, but there is one. (I tried to check for doorbells once, but the vestibule was locked.)
Anyways, I was on the stoop with the boys enjoying my usual, which on Thursdays is a hot Meatball Parmigian with a chilled Coke (liter bottle, but I save some for the drive home). As usual, we were shooting the usual shit about the job, the foreman, and so forth, and making our usual pig comments about the passing honeys, of which there are many in this particular ‘hood, as well as side-of-the-mouth cracks about all the mutton (of both sexes) pretending to be lamb, of which there is also plenty around here.
During one of our numerous conversational silences, broken only by the sounds of five men glugging, chewing, grunting, sighing, and occasionally breaking wind (from both ends), don’t ask me why, but my thoughts turned to the flagman. Since I was aware that at least a couple other dudes on the site also use that garage, I thought I’d ask if anyone happened to know the little guy. But, as I like to do, I came at the question indirectly, from the side, so to speak.
“Say, boys, any of you park your car at that place over on Fourteenth just west of the Square? I think it’s called ‘Atlas,’ or something.” Don’t ask me why I said that, I know it’s called Atlas. And, as I might of guessed, it was Jock, the runty Frenchman, who responded, by cracking wise.
“Let me guess why you are asking us this question, John,” he said, in his faintly Frog accent. You could see the ears of the other three get big as they awaited for the inevitable Jockie-ism. “You are going to tell us, ‘Sorry, but the place has just burned down,’ or ‘There was a big crash there this morning.’ Or something similar [seem-oo-lah.]. Is this not correct, John?”
That speech was one of Jock’s weaker efforts, and it got the exact response it deserved –none. Except from me.
“Very funny, Jockie Boy,” I said, “except nobody’s laughing. Actually, I was going to ask you guys a specific question, but I better direct it specifically to the other three of you, rather than to this moron Frog.”
That got a chuckle. Jock placed his sandwich and coffee container delicately on the stoop next to him. Springing to his feet and hopping down the three steps, he assumed the pugilist position.
“Let us go, John,” he said, “let us go right now. Nobody calls me ‘Moron’!” By now, he had stopped reacting to “Frog.”
I could see that the Jockie was genuinely pissed, but so what? Placing my own food and beverage on the stoop, I coolly stood up, trotted down the steps, and got in his face. But I left my hands hanging at my sides. Since Jock is about a foot shorter than me, the boys all roared. My plan, if necessary, was to bear hug him.
“Suppose I was to apologize, Jock,” I ventured. “I take it back, you’re not a moron.”
“Very well, then, accepted,” he said, sounding relieved. He hopped back up the steps and reached for his sandwich.
“No,” I said, standing right where I was. “You maybe used to be a moron, but since you got that gavoon haircut last week, now you look like an idiot!” The boys, of course, all roared.
“Asshole!” Jock contented himself with, probably because he didn’t want to put the sandwich down and challenge me again, just to get laughed at again.
Returning to my place, I also resumed my meal. But after a few bites and a slug of Coke, I spoke up again. “So. I’ll ask my question once more. Is that okay with you, Jock?” He avoided eye contact and did not reply. “So. Any of you bozos happen to know the parking attendant with the red flag in front of the Atlas garage?” Out of consideration for Jock, I did not add, “the little guy.”
Well, Jamie did know him. “Jamie” is really “Jaime,” pronounced “Hymie” (but no Jewish connection). A young Cuban dude, very good worker, well liked, a carpenter. Plus he can take a joke. For instance, a while ago, one of the other guys told this racist riddle: “What did the Latino fireman name his two sons?” “Hose A and Hose B.” Jamie laughed like everyone else, no problem.
Actually, the guy who told that joke, George, is from Uruguay, which will go down in history because their player actually bit an Italian player. (And didn’t the Aztecs play soccer, or polo, or something, using a skull for the ball?) George is a decent guy, however, quiet, a hard worker.
Anyways, as I now learned, Jaime’s grandfather knew the grandfather of the flagman. The flagman’s name, also according to Jaime, is “Raimundo.” Back in the day, shortly after that asshole Castro took power, Raimundo’s grandpa brought the whole family over to the good old U.S. of A. I think Cuba is the last remaining Commie power on earth. A bunch of fucking ostriches!
Anyways, Jaime told me that much, which satisfied my interest in the flagman, since in light of Jaime’s story, the little guy’s sour reply to my conversational gamble now made perfect sense. His daddy was probably one of those bitter old Cubanos who still hang out in Miami, playing dominoes and chomping on non-Cuban cigars while they swap lies about returning to the homeland. The apple don’t fall far from the tree.
Well, a few weeks later, even if I had still wanted to chat up the little flagman again (which I didn’t), the window of opportunity slammed shut: that is, the garage closed. And how! You see, a catastrophe occurred.
What actually happened was this. As usual, I was driving in. A Tuesday morning, early August it was, by then. But just before seven, when I hit the F.D.R., I run into the worst traffic jam I ever experienced. (Which is saying something.)
The night before, as usual, I fell asleep on the couch in the middle of a ballgame. Marie had gotten pissed, as usual, and gone up to bed alone, muttering her usual suggestion that I perform the sex act upon myself. Well, that wouldn’t of mattered –what else is new?– only we both missed the evening news.
Which I realized was a very bad thing, when I became embedded in the cement-like traffic the next morning. What I learned after getting off the Drive and parking the car in a rip-off day garage ($25.33, plus 18.375% tax, total $30), and taking the subway up to the job (same site), was that, in the middle of the night, a 100-year old water main burst, half a block west of Atlas. I first learned this from Jock, actually, while we were hauling sheet rock. The deluge resulting from the break caused big-time damage. Three nearby apartment houses had already rented temporary boilers, because theirs got flooded out. The water was completely shut off in dozens of buildings, and landlines were down for a radius of three, four blocks. (We were lucky –we use cells on the job, and our water comes through a different pipe.) As for the Atlas, it was totally submerged.
What I also heard, later on, from another co-worker who used to park down there once in a while, is that every single one of the vehicles, maybe fifty or more, many of which are really expensive rides –Mercs, Jags, Beamers, high-end SUV’s, and E.T.C.– were completely buried in mud! Actually, the guy who told me this saw the cars being towed up the ramp, one by one, a few days later, on his way to the site from the subway. He said it was unreal, just like a disaster movie. And this mess was going to be at least a six-month nightmare for the insurance agents and the vehicle owners and all others making claims. By the way, did you know that elevators which have their works in the basement and get flooded out are not eligible for coverage? I was told this about the elevators by Peter, our foreman, a knowledgeable guy (but a prick).
Several thoughts entered my head at the time. One: it was lucky my car wasn’t down there. Two: would I even be able to find a space now, since the other nearby facilities might also be closed? And, if not, they would certainly not miss this opportunity to gouge the hell out of all the unlucky dislocated parking slobs. For me, personally, it was going to mean months of subway hell.
And then I thought of what’s his name, Raimundo. What would the catastrophic event mean to his job? Oh, well, that was his problem, why should I care? But a few days ago, during a lunchtime lull, I did think of the little flagman again. So I asked Jaime, who said he heard Ray (as he calls him) got re-assigned to one of Atlas’s places out in Queens –Forest Hills, he thought, or Kew Gardens.
“But what do you care what happens to Ray, John? It’s no skin off your ass.”
I ignored that. “Good for him,” I said, my tone indicating that I didn’t give a shit. Jaime gave me a “Well, you asked” shrug.
Which I didn’t (give a shit), actually, since I am facing some big new problems of my own. First of all, Marie and I recently underwent another nuclear incident. This one was over her horrible cooking, for which I blame my ulcers on. When she started in with the old crap about my “hereditary disposition,” I completely lost it, and flung the offending dish (a big bowl of what she calls “goulash”) against the newly painted white wall of our dining tomb, right next to her prize plug-ugly China cabinet. Off to the parental dwelling she stormed, a postwar split-level in Babylon, L.I. –accompanied, of course, by my three kids!
By now, I’m just sad about this incident, which happened three, four weeks ago. And I been on my own ever since. Which means TV dinners and lots of take-out, both of which really fuck with my poor guts. It also means coming home (by subway) to an empty house, no kids. But a peaceful house, however, because no Marie to pull my chain every minute. Silver lining, right? Well…
As if all of that ain’t bad enough, the big job near Union Square has finally been completed. Ta-ra! A ten-story condo building, one spectacular unit per floor, at two mill a pop. Actually, we did a beautiful job, if I may say so myself, although truthfulness makes me add (in case you’re thinking of purchasing a unit) that by the time of the water main break, it was too late for us move the boiler up to the roof. How does that saying go, “Cavear emptat”? (“Watch out, Buyer!”)
So for me and fifty-three other grunts, it’s sayonara, back to h.q. to await for the next job. Which isn’t so bad, however, when you think of it, since they mostly seem to have several projects in the pipeline. Or, if not, maybe a month or two of Unemployment bennies till the next job call. But still, however, a major hit to my income stream.
And, you might ask, will the city now replace all the rest of the hundred-year old water mains before more of them blow? Are you kidding? Political suicide! And, unless they’re indicted, most pols are not the kind of gees who normally fall on their own swords!
Does that last point sound like I’m getting a little cynical, or even morbid? Well, maybe I am. Because, besides all of the aforementioned misfortunes, my own vehicle (how ironic!) is starting to show early warning signs of needing a new tranny (sluggish in first and in reverse, 3.5 K). Plus, I have to get ready to fork over significant spondoolicks for a mega property tax hike, because the city is finally going to replace the ancient sewers in B.R. (also ironic!)
I know, you’re asking, “Which of the pols have fallen on their swords, after all?” Do I really know? Maybe our 86 year-old Councilman is among them, finally ready to step back from the trough after eleven terms, and transfer his heroic efforts on behalf of John Q. to a full-time gig out on the links.
Oh, and of course, Marie’s salary doesn’t cover the kids’ school and camp expenses, plus that “certain amount” she feels obliged to fork over to her parents for filling the hungry mouths of three growing kids, plus her own big fat gut!
At any rate, after all this, do I really have to explain why I don’t give a flying you-know-what about poor little Raimundo? (Remember him?) He’s probably still out there in Queens, waving his red flag. And if not, for all I care, he could be on his way back to Cuba in a leaky rubber raft with an outboard motor, accompanied by eight other stiffs, each of them armed with an antiquated weapon.
* * *
Stop the Press! It’s not even ten a.m., and two major events have already transpired today. First, I leave the house (no new job calls) to go get the paper, and I’m blindsided by a huge headline:
OBAMA TO FIDEL: LET’S MAKE NICE!
Well, fuck me! A “thaw!” Does that mean we can forget about poor little Ray in his leaky raft? Then, I get home, and, just as I’m pouring my second cuppa, the phone rings. It’s my baby sister, calling to cry on my shoulder because Billy, her son, has decided to become her daughter! Whoa! Maybe, it’s time for Y.T. to sell the house and move to a new planet.
Stop the Press (#2)! Get this! The new administration says the Cubanos are poisoning our diplomats. So it’s “poor little Refugee-Ray,” after all!
About the Author:
The obverse to“Flagman” is Ron Singer’s work with the immigrants’ rights organization, New Sanctuary Coalition. In addition to “Flagman,” Singer’s recent political writing has appeared at venues including Evergreen Review and Home Planet News. His eleventh and twelfth books are scheduled for release by Unsolicited Press. The Promised End (2019) is a collection of stories about mid-life, old age, and the thereafter; and Gravy (2020), a mixed-genre collection about life after 70. For details, please visit www.ronsinger.net.