Based on a True Story

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    I headed down the sidewalk, lighting a smoke, careful not to set fire to the envelopes in the process. Everything was fine.

    Suddenly, however, as I was crossing the street, everything wasn't fine. It was one of those weird psychological states where it takes you a second to realize why and how things weren't fine anymore?though it was quite evident that they weren't.

    Instead of looking down at the sidewalk in front of me from a vantage point of slightly more than five feet above the ground, I was looking at the sidewalk from a vantage point of about three inches off the ground. And sideways. My hat was still on, the cigarette was still burning in my right hand, but I was lying flat on my side, stretched out in the crosswalk, and my left arm had gone pretty much numb. Still had the envelopes, but they were now all crumpled and dirty. I pushed myself upright, not bothering to look back at the invisible patch of ice I'd hit, and began brushing the envelopes off. I hadn't danced around like an idiot before falling down, thank God?but that didn't change the situation too much.

    A car horn sounded in front of me, and, from behind the wheel, a stranger was waving and laughing. Thankfully, since it was a sunny Saturday afternoon, most all my neighbors were out strolling, pushing baby carts or walking dogs. And I had fallen in such a place as to be clearly visible from every direction, by every last one of them.

    I dropped my head and continued on up the street to the mailbox. So it would be like that, I thought. I always wait for things like that to happen before deciding what kind of weekend it was going to be. Now I knew.

    I reached the mailbox without further incident, and decided to swing around a few extra blocks to stop by the Korean grocer to pick up some beer and maybe something to eat. But when I reached for the front door of the grocery a few minutes later, I found the gate pulled down. Then I noticed the "For Rent" sign taped across the door.

    I stood there a moment, as it always takes these things a few seconds to seep in, wondering just what the hell was going on. I'd just been in there a week earlier?less than that, even?and there'd been no indication that they were closing. The shelves were as confusingly arranged as ever, but they were still fully stocked.

    This was nuts?and it was the second time in two weeks this had happened to me. A week earlier, I'd called in a prescription refill to my local neighborhood pharmacy, a place I'd been patronizing regularly since arriving in Brooklyn. But two hours later, after walking a block to pick up my pills, I found it as closed as the grocery. But I had just talked to someone there?someone I recognized, someone who told me that I could come and pick my prescription up in a couple hours. Looking at the pulled gates, it had obviously been closed for at least a few days?though there was no "For Rent" sign to be found.

    I stood staring at the dead pharmacy for longer than a moment. Had I talked to a ghost? Worse, a ghost pharmacist? What the fuck? I trudged back home and called the pharmacy again, half expecting to get a "number disconnected" message, or Rod Serling. This time, when someone answered, I asked (quite logically, I thought), "I've just been to your store to try and get my prescription. Where in the hell are you?"

    Well, it turns out that 7th Avenue Pharmacy had shut down, its owner?a man who'd always been more than kind to me?having retired. All the accounts had been transferred to one of those glossy, carpeted chain pharmacies several blocks away.

    And now the greengrocer?a block and a half from the pharmacist, and the only 24-hour grocer in the neighborhood?was gone, too. Everything I had come to count on was vanishing around me. Now what in the hell was I supposed to do when I needed a big bottle of Drano at 3 a.m.? Wait? Not to make the same dreary point about the obvious encroaching gentrification that's been taking place here for years?but Christ. The people in these places knew me, and I knew them, and we got along fine. It's just disconcerting, is all.

    What's more, now I had to go back to the apartment and spend the rest of the afternoon on the telephone with a libel lawyer, who at the time was about halfway through detailing all the people who were going to sue me as a result of my next little book.

    The day before, I'd been told that I had to change a few names I'd already changed at least once, that I couldn't imply in one scene?however jocularly?that someone was lying to me, and I had to change the occupation of a man whose personal foibles and predilections were determined quite completely by that particular occupation. I had to multiply one figure, and could not imply that two other people were of a particular sexual persuasion.

    Now, I have nothing against this lawyer. He's a very nice fellow, and he was just doing his job, and doing it well. I know he was only looking out for me (and the publisher) in what has become an almost comically litigious nation. He even explained to me that he could no longer read books for pleasure?he had to read them like a paranoid, his keen senses always on the lookout for who could possibly sue because of a few errant words, and why.

    Seems this time there are quite a few. Not as many as last time, maybe, but still quite a few. Again, yes, he was doing his job well, but it was so fucking exhausting and frustrating. As a friend of mine pointed out, "Who needs Big Brother so long as we've got lawyers?" And it's true. It's not the government who's deciding what we can and cannot read, see or listen to anymore?it's lawyers deciding who might sue on account of what we read, see or hear?and that's just damn sad.

    Maybe I've made the point before?probably last time I had to deal with the libel lawyer?but this is what you get nowadays when you try to write something true and honest and straightforward. Might as well just stop making the point that these stories actually happened. As it turns out, I'd have an easier time publishing a book about Claude Akins' sexual habits, or the pope's days as a street thug. They're public figures, and therefore we can say whatever the fuck we want about them. In my case, though, dealing with people who are not public figures by any stretch of the imagination, once the lawyers get through with it, it's damn close to fiction anyway. Based on a True Story.

    Which reminds me of a funny thing my friend Gary told me last week. The great Max Baer Jr. wrote and produced a little movie back in 1974 called Macon County Line. It was a mildly big deal at the time, at least among the drive-in crowd. Redneck sheriff terrorizing a group of teens for no apparent reason short of his own sadistic pleasure.

    According to the director, Richard Compton, when the film was first screened for studio execs, there were complaints about obvious holes in the plot and some pretty unbelievable coincidences. The movie would never fly the way it was. So what did the filmmakers do? They slapped "Based on a True Story" at the beginning, and nobody said a fucking word after that.

    Now I wonder whether or not any redneck sheriffs recognized themselves in the movie and tried to sue as a result. Man, oh man what a world.