When Benny was a cigar store Indian
(To get you in the mood — Bird’s Eye View of Lower Manhattan, 1911 – Cropped photo I took of a sign in Battery Park.)
Author’s Note. That’s me! Author!!!! Bald Punk the authoooorrrrr! And this is my note. I’m not sold on all this reincarnation stuff Benny tells me. For a half-sec I thought about mentioning “reincarnation” in the title of this post. Then I came to my senses. Plus, I’m disavowing some of the stuff I’ve told you in the past. This is all getting too bizarre. Too . . . one step and I’m over the cliff. I saw stuff. Maybe my eyes lied to me. That’s it. That’s the author’s note. As for the post I put up last night, I got carried away.
When Benny was a cigar store Indian
I tell my lady friend(LF) everything, except stuff that’s gross or rude, or that she doesn’t need to know.
So I would have told her about Benny, “the cigar store Indian,” if I knew he was going to befriend her. I would have let her know that Benny believes he’s lived many lives and how he told me about the “reincarnated” Revolutionary War soldier named Max Beckley, whom I had later spotted roaming the South Street promenade.
(Photos by Bald Punk – South Street Promenade)
So my LF and Benny know each other. That’s not important for this here piece, except that maybe I wish they didn’t. The connection only gives Benny further license to scare the shit (in this instance ‘shit’ always sounds good in my head) out of me. Especially because my LF likes his stories.
One time when my LF and I ran into Benny in Central Park, he told us the full “cigar store Indian story.” I like the abbreviated version much better. It usually entails Benny standing stiff, a zoned out look on his face. Then after a few seconds we all burst into laughter. I like laughing out loud—real loud!
We had been taking a stroll on a path in Central Park that has a low tree canopy. It was bright and sunny and the light was filtering through the leaves. There was a surreal glow up in the branches. Benny came up on the path in front of us, and I had thought we could have a fun moment. I asked him, “Tell us how you were a cigar store Indian, again?” I stood stiff and scowled, expecting him to do the same.
Yet his brow furrowed and he looked carefully into each of our eyes. He rubbed the chin of his tanned face. A calm light in his blue eyes surfaced, probably like the kind Jesus has in his eyes. Benny can really put a person at ease. You hardly notice he’s nuts. My LF doesn’t.
Finally, he said, “It was 1892, yes.”
“The year,” I said, laughing good-naturedly.
“I’m certain,” he said and seemed to organize his thoughts.
(Photo from Digitalgallery.nypl.org – South St. & East River, 1890.)
“Were you as handsome then as you are now?” my LF said, who is as cool as shit. She always knows what to say.
Benny’s eyes twinkled, really twinkled. He blushed just a little. “I was a cigar store Indian out of necessity,” he said and all of a sudden the light across his whole face diminished. His voice grew thin. “Few things of importance escape me in New York.”
“Things—supernatural,” my LF said, knowing exactly where this story was going.
Benny nodded. “I had seen Max Beckley. I had spoken to him. What a poor, lost soul. I wanted to find out who or what was behind his possession. I thought it was demonic. I knew the building where he ‘lived.’ I needed an excuse to watch it.”
“Was it was one of those fish market offices?” I asked, partly not wanting to know the full truth. When they looked at me, I added, “On the day I had seen Max, someone was staring at us from one of those offices, and I’d swear the face I saw wasn’t human.”
(Old Fulton Fish Market offices – South Street, NYC)
“Hey!” I cried. “I thought you were going to give us the cigar store Indian stance. That’s funny. Because this doesn’t sound like a nice story.”
“No, it’s not,” Benny said and paused for a second.
I looked away.
“Back in the late 19th Century,” he continued, “diagonally across from the fish market offices, where the Seaport Mall is today, there was a wharf. Set out in front of it were warehouses, a coffee shop, two taverns, and a tobacconist’s shop–where I was friends with the owner.”
“You had a job, once!” I said sardonically. Benny’s famous for saying how he doesn’t need money, even though he’s homeless.
“I didn’t take payment,” he said.
“Nice friend, no pay, and he turned you into a wooden thing,” I said. “This is a lame story.”
“Would you be quiet,” my LF said, who has long black hair and is the nicest person you could ever meet.
“The owner was blind,” Benny said.
“Are there any deaf people, we got dumb and blind so far,” I said, smiling all by my lonesome.
My LF hit me. “Ignore him, Benny.”
I rubbed my arm because it hurt. Benny smiled. The only thing as nice as his eyes is his smile, and I’ve told you how he doesn’t have the best teeth.
“The owner was old and he was also going deaf,” Benny said and nodded to me.
I made like I swallowed my tongue, going heavy on the silent verbiage with a few well placed hip and shoulder movements. I always have to move, even when I’m standing still, and especially when I can’t speak. That’s why I did mediocre in school. Probably should have taken meds back then.
“Many cut-throat dregs, drunkards, and ruffians came into his store,” Benny said. “They looked for an easy score. I would stand outside the shop on a small porch, though I would look back through the window and make sure no one filched anything or gave him trouble. When the store was empty, I would train my eyes across the street on the fish market building. Sometimes I would stay long into the night, after the store had closed.”
He gave us an example, standing straight. His old man body seemed to rise a few inches. He looked inanimate—and wooden, especially because his had such dark, tanned skin. The light was nearly gone from his eyes. Unlike all the times before when he pretended to be a wooden Indian, now we didn’t laugh.
“No one noticed ‘me’ unless they gave the owner a hard time,” Benny said. “Many said I looked like the best cigar store Indian they had ever seen.”
“Now that’s funny,” I said.
“What did you see?” my LF asked.
“Nothing–” Benny began.
I wanted to laugh, but held my breath and did a little dance.
“—but I did see Max exit every few months or so, always looking different. Never the same face or body exactly, but I recognized his soul. You can’t disguise something like that. Even if the colors change, you can’t change the look of the soul.” Benny paused for a long moment.
My LF, a great listener, didn’t say anything because there was no need. The look on Benny’s face said he was framing his thoughts. But I’m impatient.
“So ya saw nothing,” I said, if I sounded a little smart-alecky, it wasn’t on purpose.
“They’re in that fish market building,” Benny said and gave a deep exhaled. “Even now, they’re in there, but it’s not as easy as walking into the building and confronting them. They’re not human. That’s a certainty, or if they are, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before.”
“You had said once before that ‘Max was being perfected’,” my LF said. “What exactly did you mean?”
“Each time he came back to life, his soul was different. My guess was that it was being perfected or possibly altered by these demons. I could be wrong.”
“What would happen if I walked into that building?” I asked. “Like I said, I know the one. I saw something. I saw a face,” I said snootily to remind him that I knew more than him. I like to rub stuff in sometimes. Maybe because I have a horrible job and hence, a slight inferiority complex. But I’m working on the IC. “Oh, btw, what I saw wasn’t human. I’m certain of that.”
“What you saw was a human-looking face,” Benny said. “But your senses told you what you saw wasn’t human. What’s in there is too demonic and terrible and smart, to show itself. You probably saw a human minion like Max.”
“Yeah!” I said, impressed because it seemed to make a light go off in my head. I believed him.
“Your heart knows the truth,” Benny said.
“So what if I went in there?” I asked.
Benny thought for a moment. “Maybe nothing–you’ll be confronted by only empty space. Or they might be there and wind up abducting you. The possibilities are endless.”
“Just like death,” my LF said.
“Either nothing happens or the possibilities are endless,” I said, paraphrasing Jud Crandall in Stephen King’s Pet Sematery.
Benny nodded and the three of us had a moment. A long, serious moment!
Appendix: When I write at my computer, I wiggle around in the seat. That’s crazy, right? I just noticed I do that. My feet dance around, too.
Here are all the posts in this series: Episode Fifteen – August 2009