Friday, November 14, 2008

Jimmy Won't Let Me Say "Can't"

I am a child of two cities.

San Francisco is my mother and New York is my father.

One of my closest friends here in New York is a 65-year old Irish-American named Jimmy. I'd call him a father figure, but I didn't really get along with my father, so I think of him more as a grandfather figure--even though Jimmy could have had me when he was thirty, a reasonable age to have kids. Besides, both my grandfathers died when I was very young, so it's good to have a kind soul like Jimmy to fill that void.

Tonight we met for coffee at a diner in Manhattan. "How ya doing, kid?" he asked me as I sat down.

"I gotta get laid, Jimmy. It's been over a fucking year."

He patted my face with his palm like they always do in the mob movies. "Listen to him: 'I gotta do this. I gotta do that'. Take it the fuck easy, kid."

I shrugged and kvetched--like they always do in the Jewish movies. "I'm trying, Jimmy. But, man, I don't know. I can't get laid, you know?"

He wagged his finger at me while taking a drink of coffee, which in Jimmyspeak means: Even though I'm drinking coffee, don't say anything, because when I swallow, I'm going to say something really important.

Which he did, "You gotta talk to 'em, that's what the fuck you gotta do. Fuck this 'I gotta get laid' shit. What? You think you're going to fuck some broad without talking to her first? You're gonna put your dick in some deaf and dumb pussy? There's an order to things here, kid."

I laughed, "I know, Jimmy. But I can't, man. I used to be able to, but I can't anymore."

"You're a fucking comedian, aren't you? Make 'em laugh, for Christ's sake. What? You think you're going to be able to get it up without making some bitch laugh first? I know you too well, kid. Use that sense of yoo-mer God gave ya. Anybody can have a dick."

"Women can't."

Now it was Jimmy's turn to laugh, "Yeah, you ain't been down to the Village lately!" He smiled widely and then brought his voice down a few decibels, "Come on, kid, you know what I'm saying here. If you're gonna get laid without talking to a broad first, you might as well be raping. And there's no honor in that. That's not what we do, you understand?"

"Jesus, Jimmy. Are you crazy? I'd never rape a chick!"

He smiled and took another drink of coffee, "I'm just fucking with you, kid."

I breathed a sigh of relief, "I'm too shy to rape a chick!"

"Yeah, well that kind of shy is all right," he said, "but if you wanna get laid, you gotta talk to 'em. Okay?"

"I can't, man," I said, "It's one thing when they're in the audience and I'm on the stage. But real life? One on one? I can't. . .I can't. . ."

Jimmy brought his palm down on the Formica table, making the silverware jump. "Enough of this 'can't' shit! That's all I ever hear from you. 'I can't do this! I can't do that!'"

"Sorry, Jimmy. I can't help it."

"There he goes again!" he exclaimed with his trademark half-smile of compassion. Jimmy never gets mad at me. He only gets frustrated. "Why don't you just say 'I won't'?"

"Won't?" I asked, befuddled.

"Yeah. That's closer to the truth, isn't it?"

"You mean, 'I won't get laid?'"

"Yeah. I'd respect that a lot more than 'I can't'."

I tried it out a few times in a deep booming voice, wagging my finger sternly and pronouncing the new contraction as a term of selfish refusal. "I won't talk to women! I won't have sex! I won't get laid!"

Jimmy looked to his left and then to his right, muttering softly, "Okay, kid, bring it down a notch. I've been coming to this diner for twenty years and I don't want to get kicked out now."

I was amazed at the difference. "Wow. This 'won't' shit is pretty scary."

"And why do you think that is?" he asked me.

"Cause it makes everything a choice?"


"And 'can't' makes me a victim?"

"Give him some sunglasses, now he's seeing the fucking light."

My whole world seemed to open up just then into a beautiful garden of infinite possibility. "I feel so stupid. Can you believe I'm a fucking libertarian even?"

Jimmy chuckled knowingly, being a libertarian himself. "Easy in theory, hard in practice, right?"

"No shit."

"But choice is always good, no?"

"It sure is, Jimmy. It sure is."

"So the next time you want to bang some broad. . ." he took another sip of coffee, wagging his finger again until he finally swallowed, ". . .just think of Milton Friedman!"

We cackled so loudly at our inside political joke that the middle-aged group of yentas sitting in the next booth gathered their coats and purses and left in a huff.

On the way home later, I found myself on the subway sitting next to a cute shiksa in a purple beret and leather jackboots. When the train pulled up to Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn and the doors opened, the crowd thinned. I could see from the corner of my eye that the girl had plenty of room to slide over. But she didn't.

Wow, I thought, I don't repulse her. She doesn't feel the need to move away from me. I should say something.

And then, with the clockwork regularity of a bad psychological habit, the fanfare of self-defeat began.

I can't look at her. I can't talk to her. I can't approach her.

But then I remembered Jimmy's lesson from earlier and switched the contractions.

I won't look at her. I won't talk to her. I won't approach her.

Needless to say, nothing happened. The shiksa got off at Myrtle Avenue and disappeared with the closing of the doors into the bittersweet anonymity of a starless November night.

I'll have to confirm with Jimmy, but I suspect there's an essential third stage to this linguistic reshuffling: Changing the negative into a positive.

I will look at her. I will talk to her. I will approach her.