(The following is “The Human Condition” column I wrote for Article 25 in April. The May edition of that publication is now out with a new column, but “Ernie Jay” is not currently on the web. Therefore, I’m going to print it here. This is an example of the kind of stories you’ll find in Article 25)
I live in Covington, Ky., and was walking up to Pike and Holman streets to get to a liquor store. I needed a bottle of vodka and had seven bucks – just enough to buy a fifth. It wasn’t that long of a walk starting off on Madison Avenue, but when you have nerve damage in your legs and feet and walk with a cane, the walk can be trying.
It was a damp, wet afternoon and I was feeling it in my legs. I made it to the store all right and bought the bottle. The store clerk put it in a brown paper bag.
Before starting the walk back home, I leaned against the outside wall of the liquor store and pulled a cigarette out of my pack. Lighting it, I wasn’t looking forward to the walk back.
I looked to my right and saw a short, black man walking toward me. It was a fairly warm day, but it looked like he was wearing two coats. As he got closer, he smiled at me. The man didn’t have any teeth.
His eyes were brown and his short hair gray. He smelled a bit dirty. Feeling tired, I was hoping the man would simply walk on by and leave me alone. He didn’t.
“You got a cigarette I can buy?” he asked.
“I’ll give you one,” I replied, reaching for a cigarette out of my pack.
He took it and put it in his mouth and I lit it for him.
“Thank you, sir, appreciate it,” he said.
The man looked down at my cane.
“Trouble walking?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said. “I’m used to it.”
“Where you headed?”
“Walking down to Madison Avenue.”
“Hell, I can walk with you,” he said. “I’m going that way, too.”
Having regretted telling the man where I was going, we both started walking down Pike Street. Smoking our cigarettes, the man asked if I wanted him to take my arm to steady me. I said no thanks.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Robert,” I said, lying. “What’s yours?”
“Ernie Jay. J-a-y.”
“Nice to meet you, Ernie,” I said.
“Really? Not many people say that to me,” he said. “People take a look at me and my old clothes and no teeth and figure I’m worthless or something.”
“That’s something you pick up on?”
“Of course!” Ernie said. “They probably figure I want something from them – money or whatever. Sometimes I do want something.”
That last thing he said rattled me a little. I put out my cigarette on the sidewalk. I was anxious to get to Madison Avenue, and I held on tight to that brown paper bag with the vodka in it.
“You from here?” I asked, wanting to keep the conversation off any kind of questions about myself.
“Lived in Covington all my life,” he said, throwing his cigarette out onto the street. “Lost my wife to cancer about 10 years ago, kind of lost myself, too, after that.”
“How you mean?”
Ernie held up a fake bottle to his mouth, tilted his head back and pretended to be drinking. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye.
“Must have been hard losing your wife,” I said.
“Drinking made it better, killed the pain,” Ernie said. “Drank all my money away, lost my home, lost everything, even my teeth!”
Ernie laughed, and I laughed with him. Thinking of that bottle of vodka I was carrying in the paper bag, the feeling of anxiety continued in my head. I hoped Ernie wasn’t intending to rob me.
“Where do you live in Covington?” I asked.
“All over,” Ernie said. “I got a daughter who sometimes will let me stay with her and I got friends who don’t mind me sleeping on the sofa once in a while.”
“Are you homeless?”
“I try not to think about that,” Ernie said, “but sometimes I consider the great outdoors my home.”
We kept walking. Madison Avenue was now maybe two blocks away.
“What’s in your bag there?” Ernie asked.
I thought, “This is it.”
He found me standing in front of a liquor store. He was smart enough to put two and two together.
“A little something for later,” I replied.
“I know what that might be, Robert,” he said. “Wouldn’t mind sharing a little with you.”
“A little too early in the day for me,” I said.
And with that, our conversation stopped for a while. I thought Ernie might be figuring out how to get the bag with the bottle in it out of my left hand.
We finally reached Madison Avenue. Ernie said, “Which way you heading?”
“Which way are you heading?” I replied.
“I’m turning left.”
“I’m turning right,” I said.
Ernie offered me his right hand.
“It was good talking to you, Robert,” he said. “I appreciate the conversation.”
“Same here, Ernie,” I replied, feeling a bit relieved we were parting ways.
“Enjoy your vodka,” Ernie said as he smiled and turned left. I stood there for a few seconds and watched him walk away.
When I got home, I took that bottle of vodka out of the paper bag. After lighting a cigarette, I filled a shot glass and drank the vodka quickly. As it went down, I thought of Ernie Jay.
I’m not sure why I was so suspicious of him. Maybe it was because my legs and feet were in pain or maybe I was just tired, but both of those reasons are more than likely excuses.
Why so many of us don’t really trust people or don’t want to associate with those who appear to be down on their luck or look different might be how society has trained us. Even Ernie knows this, as he told me most people want to avoid him. At least maybe I faked not noticing his odd appearance, but that’s what I was doing and I didn’t want to walk with him.
I feared I was going to lose my property – that bottle of vodka – simply because of the way Ernie was dressed and his lack of teeth. I can’t help but wonder if he were dressed in slacks and a polo shirt and had a full set of teeth if I would have felt the same way. I doubt it, and who the hell am I to judge anybody with my hippie hair and blue jeans? Where’s my open mind toward others?
Walking with Ernie Jay that afternoon woke me up. I need to remember to look for the good in people no matter how they appear. I basically believe most of us look out for one another and want to be honest in how we live our lives and view and treat others. At least I do.
As I smoked my cigarette, I poured more vodka into my shot glass, I thought, “The next time I see Ernie Jay on the sidewalk, I’ll stop and talk for a while. I might even tell him my right name.
(Photo from Google)