The closing vignette of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes knocked me on my ass. You’re imagining Uma frozen in an overhead kick, with me sprawled on the floor, out cold. Well, I didn’t tell you to imagine that. Because it’s not at all that. Closing scene features Taylor Mead, actor, poet, and Warhol superstar. Mead is known for standing up on a bar screaming his poetry over the noise of drunks. Coffee & Cigarettes is a series of character studies, interesting characters, and it left me with an aftertaste for more. More characters… in my life.
You must know one or two. Those whacks full of life and passion, the ones who make you laugh until your soda dribbles out your nose and stings. You shake your head, call them hams, then retell their stories at dinner parties. They outlive themselves, and even once they’ve gone, they’re still so much a part of who you are. They’re that snapshot in your collage of life that your eyes keep panning toward. In my lifetime, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a handful of such nuts. Today, I’m sharing one with you:
My Greek grandfather Papoo invented words and languages people always wanted to learn. He made people listen without telling them to. “Ma-shu-gar” that’s what he called me. Well, he called me The Mouth, too, except ma-shu-gar was a term of endearment. Whenever he called up from Florida, he’d tell my mother he wanted The Mouth on the phone. “What the hell is ma-shu-gar?” I asked him the first time he said it.
“I had a pal, a pal of mine in Texas, are ya listn’ deary? And this Texan with thick skin like an Indian was some fella. With one hand over his heart, he’d shake his head, tip his hat and say, ‘See that man? That man is mashugar.’ It means crazy deary.” My other grandfather, the Jewish conservative one, said mashugina, but I liked the way Papoo said it, as if he were on stage. As he drank more and more, he replaced ma-shu-gar with mo-fu-ho, which stood for Mother Fucking Whore. Of course he still called me ma-shu-gar, but when I translated his new acronym aloud, even when it was just the two of us, he’d wheel quickly out of the living room into his bedroom singing On The Road Again to drown me out.
He kept all his money in jars of marmalade that he made with the fruits in his yard. “They’ll have to carry out jars if they’re gonna steal from me.” When they finally did get robbed, the thieves opened them and plunged their arms into the jars to pull out the money. Papoo yelled to my Yiya. “Pelar, clean up this gew. The Nigras left a goddamn, Pelar, there’s crap on the doorknob.” And I can just picture Yiya shuffling out with a wet cloth, yelling back at him, “Shut up you old man. I’m coming.”
The last time I saw Papoo alive was when I was on spring break from college. My friend Linda Kingsley was raised in Florida and knew all the hot spots around Boca. We were planning on going to some nightclub, so Papoo insisted on taking me to the mall for an outfit. When I walked out of the fitting room, he breathed in fast like a child first learning how to whistle. “Darlin’ what you need is those thigh highs, ya dig? Ooh, those thigh highs with the seam down the back.” Little did he know what a monster he’d created.
That night, when I was pressing my lips together to even out my lipstick in the living room mirror, Papoo wheeled out and did his whistle. “My God, my dear you’re gunna give this old man a heart attack.” He tried to smack me on the behind, except he missed. The second time he tried to swat me, his wheelchair rolled backwards. There he was, lying on the floor, his half leg dangling like a sausage. I tried to get him up; he was too heavy. “Get your grandmother, dear.” He whispered.
“Yiya, Papoo fell back in his wheelchair.” I yelled.
“Ah, tell him to wait.”
“She said tell him to wait.”
“Ah, that one. Hey, darlin’, while I’m down here, ya’ mind bringing me some shnops?”
“Okay, then how about a very long straw? Ya dig?” And upside down, laying on the floor, there was Papoo asking for a drink, laughing at his jokes, and my reaction to his telling of them.
After Yiya helped him up, he wheeled over to me with tears in his eyes and grabbed both my hands. His hands were warm and brown, square soft paddles. “This is what life is all about. This is what you’ll remember and tell stories about. This is what makes life. It’s what it’s all about.” He had a mole on his eyelid that I hadn’t noticed before.
Every year I visited, we fought to a silence. Silent treatment. We were two kids together. I remember him as a loud obnoxious man with a flair for storytelling, but my Aunt Georgette tells me it’s a shame I didn’t know him when he wasn’t fueled up on spirits. “He was the kindest man, such a teddy bear. He was my very best friend.” He really must have been because Georgette is such a hard woman. He must have given her something to soften her edge. He could get to her. He could get to everyone.
Under duress, I conjure him, allowing him to be my strength. How would he deal? Surprisingly, I don’t always end up at the bar. Sometimes I just call people a Mo-fu-ho, tell ’em to go scratch, then forget about it. It’s just not worth it sometimes… not when there’s so much richness in life to find. Papoo is somehow here, preventing people from shiteting on me. And Linus gets to hear him from time to time too… around my apartment, “Linus, ya little shite, get your ass in here.”
I hope I’m blessed with more characters. Maybe I should start hanging out at Irish pubs during the day. Coffee, cigarettes, and Jameson anyone?