Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The End of Innocence

"Yeah, this used to be a nice place to live," the old man said wistfully as we strolled down the garbage strewn sidewalk. "Kids played in the street, the air was filled with song, and everyone got along. Nowadays, we keep our doors locked, our windows barred, and we only go out when we have to - and rarely after dark."

From the looks of things, you'd never know that we were walking through what was once considered the world's nicest neighborhood. That was a long time ago, though. The once sweet air had turned acrid over time and the families and friendly neighbors for which the block had been famous had left long ago. Vacant buildings outnumbered occupied ones by a three to one margin, and nearly every window was shattered or boarded up.

Over the years, an uneasy truce had developed between the residents that remained and the rats that infested the area, with each side resigned to living with the other and trying to make the best of what they both considered a bad situation.

We stepped over broken crack vials and empty liquor bottles, as he pointed out some of the remaining residents.

"See that tall guy over there? That's B.B. He's 36 years old, 8 feet 2 inches tall and has the intellectual capacity of a six year old. Lots of people are intimidated by him, but he's pretty a pretty gentle soul. In fact, he still sleeps with his teddy bear, Radar."

"For a long time, we thought he had an imaginary best friend." he continued. "You have no idea how surprised we were when his friend turned out to be real. The guy goes by the name of Snuffy and he's even dumber than B.B., if that's possible. One day I watched him spend nearly an hour trying to tie his shoelaces. It's a good thing for him that B.B. has taken him under his wing, so to speak, cause I doubt he'd survive a week on his own."

He turned and pointed across the street. "Now you see that chunky fella in the window over there? He does nothing but eat - all day, every day. He's gotten so obese that he can't even fit out the door, so he has to have the local market deliver everything he needs. "

"When he had his first heart attack a while back, they could barely get him out the door." He looked towards the roof of the building. "After he got home, he had a compressor drive and pulley installed on top of the building and he put that big old window in. Now when he has a heart attack - which happens about once a month - the paramedics pop out his window, strap him to the pulley, and lower him onto a specially constructed flatbed ambulance."

"His doctors put him on a diet, but he still finds ways to get junk food. He especially loves cookies. I've never seen one person eat so many of 'em. Not that you want to watch him eat, mind you. It's disgusting. Most of the food just falls out of his mouth."

Our attention was drawn away from the window by a man in a black cape who muttered to himself as he walked past us.

"We call that guy 'The Count' on account of the fact that he spends his days walking around counting things - kinda like one of those guys in that movie 'Rain Man.' He's pretty harmless, but he scares the hell out of people 'cause every time he finishes counting, he makes thunderclap noises, wets himself, and laughs like a maniac for about a half an hour."

As we came to the corner, we found our path blocked by a short, skinny guy wearing a red cape and a medieval knight's helmet.

"What the hell is it with you people and capes?" I asked, but the old man just smiled and shrugged.

"Hey Super G." he said to the costumed man, who turned to acknowledge the greeting. Before he could reply, the visor on his helmet slammed closed painfully on his large, already red nose. He let out a muffled curse before lifting the visor with one hand and saying "Hello! I can see that you are lost. If you walk back exactly the way you came, you'll find yourself you started and won't be lost any more!"

"Thanks, G" the old man said with a grin. The man in the cape saluted, dropped his visor, cursed again, and raced down the street.

"Is he on crack or something?" I asked.

"No, no. It's nothing like that," he assured me. "He got hit in the head once, and ever since then he goes through these spells where he thinks he's a superhero."

"Now where were we?" he continued as we crossed the street and made our way further up the block.

"Oh yeah," he said remembering, "that apartment over there belongs to our resident fetish freak.1 Everyone pretty much ignores him, but every once in a while someone will call the police and they'll drag him off to jail for a few days. He's much better when he's on his meds but when he doesn't take them, he drives us all a little crazy - wandering around saying 'I need it bad' and begging us to tickle him."

We stopped before a well-kept brownstone.

"The couple that lives here restored this place themselves," said the old man. "I think they intended to move at one point, but the property values plummeted when the street went bad. Now they can't even get anything close to the money they've put into it."

"They're an odd couple. The tall skinny one is pretty bright, but he's awfully high strung. He collects bottle caps and paper clips and uses them to make funky jewelry that he sells in a little shop he owns up the road. His 'life partner' - as I guess they're called - is a short heavyset fella. He's probably just about the nicest guy I've ever known. To be honest, I'm surprised he hasn't left the cranky bastard by now. "

"They call each other 'old buddy' in public, but we all know the real deal. As a matter of fact, if you walk down to the park at night, you'll sometimes see them in the woods doing what they call 'playing puppet' and that everyone else calls 'fisting'."

We concluded our tour in front of an alley. "The main reason why most of the families moved," he said "is because of the guy who lives in that dumpster over there. He calls it his summer home. In the winter, he lives in a garbage can. Says it's cheaper to heat. And you see all that junk in the alley? Well, it belongs to him. He just collects it and leaves it laying everywhere."

"He started out nasty and he's just gotten worse over the years. At first, he tolerated the kids when they played in front of his 'house.' As time went on, he started yelling at them more and more often. One day he snapped and started chasing them away with a rusty machete whenever they came near the alley. He never caught any of the kids, but it was enough to scare people into moving."

He sighed and looked around.

"No, this isn't the same Sesame Street you knew growing up, " he said "but it still isn't as bad as some other places. Trust me, you don't even want to know what goes on over at the old Electric Company."

1 Thanks to MJ for pointing out the difference between a sex fiend and a fetish freak. 2

2 Wait. That doesn't sound quite right. I meant that her comment made me realize that I'd used the wrong term.

* Editor's Note: Grover rocks. He is, by far, the best character on Sesame Street. Mad props to my boy Grover.**

** The above editor's note was added in response to a comment by Anonymous, who correctly points out that Grover doesn't get enough props.