One winter when I was about 20, I lived at the corner of 43rd and Warwick in a bare-bulb apartment with two other guys. The 1983 Chevette was on the fritz again (fuel pump or something). I had walked a mile and some to work and back that day, and my shoes were completely sopped. They were sloshing, as I had accidentally stomped into a salty, muddy puddle about six-inches deep at the end of a driveway.
For some reason, I decided not to stop at the liquor store at 45th and Main on the way home. I was too damn cold—it was one of those 0-degree days with a heavy wind. And I wanted a nap, as I was pooped after slinging pizzas on a hangover all day.
By the time I get up and around from the nap, it 9 p.m. and it’s snowed four more inches. There’s nothing to drink in the house. I decide to walk to the liquor store for a case of beer. The Berbiglia used to sell Wiedemann Beer in the 24-bottle returnable case for $4.95. Plus, they sold Mexican brandy, which sounded perfect for a cold night at home away from the howling wind.
I start doing my best thinking. Those wet, slushy shoes won’t work. I don’t want to put them on, saturated as they were with pizza sauce and flour and garbage. If I put on a couple layers of socks, I can get to the store and back in my flip-flops before I start freezing ass. The radiator will dry the socks when I get home, so who’s to know? I don’t know the guys at the store. Why would walking into the store in beach shoes embarrass me?
As you can imagine, everything is just fine until I get to the street. A few steps along, the flip-flops fall off—the socks keep the little piece from sticking between my toes to keep the shoes on. I struggle down to 43rd toward Main, taking a few steps and stopping to push the flip-flops back on. I don’t get a whole block away before I say to myself, well, fuck it, and tuck the flip-flops under my arm and keep going in stocking feet.
I get to the door of the store and shove the flippers back on my feet and waddle and slide (it was on the only way to keep the shoes on) across to the cooler. I pull out a case and find the brandy. Snow covers my feet and legs to the knees. The dude behind the counter has seen it all, and says, “Nice night for a walk, ey?” I laugh, thinking he’s a fucking bum. He rings up my goods, and the bill comes to $10.95, which was literally all the money I could pull out of my pockets.
Now that case of glass bottles weighs I don’t know how much, and I have to carry it with two hands. But I have this liter of brandy that won’t quite fit into the pocket of my jacket. (I had on a jacket and not a coat in the minus-0 fucking weather.) Somehow, I balance the brandy between the bottles in the case. I make it out the door, put everything down, and pick up the flip-flops and put them under my arm. Then, I head down Main Street with all this luggage.
Genius that I am, I cross Main in the front of the liquor store—no crosswalks or driveways, just stupid street. I skate across on my stocking feet. But the snow plows have done their work by this time, and there’s no sidewalk, just a long mound of snow on the side of the street. My feet sink into the plowed snow to my upper legs. Fighting my way through, I make to the other side. Then, I walk half in the mound on one side and up on the steep terrace of the apartment buildings on the other. Meanwhile, the brandy is sliding side to side over the bottles and I’m doing my best to keep it all together.
By the time I get back home, my socks have frozen solid. I’m almost sure I have frostbite on my face and nose. My fingers are frozen stiff by carrying that case of bottles and the brandy. The inside of my elbows and biceps are burning from the weight. Meanwhile, I’m shivering and shaking uncontrollably.
I get to the door of the apartment and find that I left my keys inside. My roommates aren’t home and I don’t know any of the neighbors in the building.
So, I do the next best thing. I put the brandy and flip-flops by the door and take the beer case over to the fire escape. I want to use the case as a step to get the fire escape ladder, which I expect will slide down when I grab it. I figure I’ll climb the ladder and use the fire escape to get to my window, which I’m sure isn’t locked. Once in the apartment, I’ll grab my keys and retrieve my stuff.
Brilliant. I feel smart, resourceful, and proud that I have such a great, problem-solving mind.
But the ladder and the building are like a hundred years old. I finally get both hands on the ladder and the beer case rolls out from beneath me, spilling bottles into the snow. The ladder’s either frozen or rusted in place. I’m hanging on the ladder with my toes two feet off the ground. What the hell? I think to myself. Why does this shit always happen to me?
By this time, my feet are part numb and part stinging from the wet and cold. I start feeling sorry for myself, but I’m not giving up. I start bouncing as best I can, doing a kind of pull-up and then letting my arms relax suddenly. I keep jerking at the ladder and though I can’t really feel my hands anymore, I know I’m losing my grip. My forearms are aching from the strain.
About the time my hands come free, the ladder snaps. I fall and get pinned, the last rung of the ladder over my chest. I’m in about 9 inches of snow. It’s a miracle one of the ladder legs didn’t pierce a leg or go through my chest or break ribs. The ladder weighs a ton and it takes me about five minutes to wiggle out from beneath it. It’s about damn time, I say to myself, brushing the snow off me.
But here’s the deal: The rungs of the ladder are made out of angle-iron with the pointy corner up. I have to climb the ladder by hanging my toes off the top angle of the rungs. It’s painful as hell. Then, when I get to the fire escape, it turns out that all the cross pieces are also of angle iron with the pointy angles up. It’s like walking on punji sticks. It struck me that it made sense to build the fire escape this way so the ice and weather would drain off the iron. But, damn, why did everyone have to be so sensible?
Still, I think, why me? I inch my way across the landing to my window: “Ouch, ugh, ouch, goddamn, ouch, shit.” The screen on the window comes out easy enough. But wouldn’t you know? The window is stuck. I’m looking at the lock and it’s unlocked, it’s little arm waving at me. I heave and jerk, trying to get the sash up. I pound on the frame all around and heft some more.
I’m at a quandary at this point. I don’t want to walk back across that fire escape and go down the ladder again, as my feet now feel like frozen stumps. I’m worn out from all the work. I lean out from the fire escape to try another window about three feet away, around a corner on the front of the building. I knock the screen off and it falls to the ground. I don’t really have any leverage to get purchase on the window to open it. So, I just start pounding the frame. Fortunately, this window isn’t stuck and the sash weights are heavy enough to allow the window to scoot up about a quarter inch each time I hit the frame.
I’m at this for what seems like an hour. I’m really cold now and have lost feeling in my feet. My hand stings like crazy every time I hit the window frame.
Finally, I get the window open about a foot, which gives me a better angle. Open the window all the way, I step up on the stone sill of the window I couldn’t open and stand. I have to stay close to the building to keep from falling. Somehow, I contort myself enough to step around the corner, free from the fire escape and onto the sill of the open window. I don’t know how I’m not slipping on the snow and ice. Just getting in, I lose my balance but somehow grab onto something, the window frame or the sash or whatever, to keep from falling. I do this a couple of times and finally slide into the window onto the floor.
Now in the apartment, I can’t find my keys. I’m afraid someone’s going to come by and take my stuff, bottles strewn all over the terrace, liter of brandy in plain sight, etc. So, I get my wet shoes and stumble down the stairs. I stuff the toe of one of the shoes under the foyer door to keep it open, then the toe of the other under the front door to keep it open.
Meanwhile, I’m still in these socks, which have unfrozen by now. They are flopping around, wet. My pants are sopping, as well as the sleeves and back of my jacket. My feet are still numb and my right hand, the one I pounded the window with, feels like it’s broken.
But I’m home free. I get the bottles I can find back into the case, but I’m still missing about eight. I shuffle back and forth across the terrace, searching for the rest. It took a long time. But I’ve gulped Mexican brandy and feel a little better. When I get all the bottles back in the case, I balance the brandy back between the bottles. I leave the flip-flops because I’m just fed up. I kick the shoe out from under the front door, put the case down, pick up the shoe, move forward through the foyer door about five feet, and do the same with the other shoe.
I don’t even take off my socks before I settle into my first beer, and, brother, it’s ice cold. I look at the time. It’s 11:30. I’ve been outside in my stocking feet for over two hours. But I have my supply. I celebrate like it’s 1999 and pass out somewhere toward 2 a.m.