Cock Fight

Dean Wrzeszcz, 1957-2020.
Facebook/ H. Richard Quadracci

I was loaded down with four overfilled double bags of groceries from Trader Joe’s as I crossed Sixth Avenue with quick, clipped steps, like a strongman in a yoke walk competition. I stopped at the corner and placed my bags down to hail a taxi. A yellow SUV driver flashed his lights and pulled over within arm’s reach. I sighed in relief.

As I slid open its door, I heard a man shouting.

“Excuse me, sir, but that’s our taxi!”

To my right and further up the block, I gave what I thought would be a parting glance to the 30-something who approached me, his female companion following close behind. I looked around to see if I had ignored a designated taxi line. I assumed they were from out of town. New Yorkers would have grabbed the next taxi passing by.

Rather than offering a lesson on taxi hailing etiquette, I focused on loading my groceries into the vehicle. With back and forth momentum, I swung two of the bags like kettlebells onto the far end of the back seat.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” the man said as I reached for my last bag.

What’s with this guy? If he had wanted a ride with his name on it, he should have used a car service.

“Jake, don’t!,” his girlfriend screamed.

An hour earlier, I had been celebrating a friend’s birthday in New York City’s Chelsea district. After the cake was served, Betsy, an elderly woman who lives with five cats, announced she was leaving because it was past her “babies’” feeding time. I did the gentlemanly thing and offered to escort her home.

“Thank you,” she said, lightly touching my shoulder. “And they say chivalry is dead.”

“Take some lasagna with you,” our host said. “There’s too much. It’ll just go to waste.”

“My cats don’t like lasagna.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Yes, sweetie,” Betsy said, patting me on my back. “I have acid reflux, but I’m not senile.”

“I’ll take a piece,” I said.

As a decades’-long gym rat with decent culinary skills, I usually prepare most of my meals. But I was running low on provisions at home, and I needed something to wolf down after my late-night gym workout. I probably wouldn’t get to the store until the next day.

After dropping off Betsy at her nearby apartment building, I walked toward the 23rd Street subway station and noticed the lights still bright inside of Trader Joe’s. Comparing my supermarket in Hell’s Kitchen to the Chelsea gem before me was depressing. Not only was my local market subpar in quality, but it exploited its lack of competition by indulging in free-range pricing. I often left the store carrying only a few necessities and resenting the amount I paid for them, earning its “Food Extortion” nickname.

At TJ’s, I could load up on frozen chicken, fish, and vegetables, and staples like basmati rice and coconut oil — enough to feed my muscles for weeks — and still save more than enough to cover the taxi fare home.

The one downside to shopping at the chain was its popularity. But walking into the store an hour before closing that Tuesday evening was like discovering an alternate universe. There were no burgeoning lines running along the outer perimeter, no gridlocked or double-parked carts blocking passage, and no self-absorbed, headphone-clad customers traveling incommunicado. I practically had the place to myself.

I felt unencumbered as I positioned my cart at the beginning of the first aisle, tempted to speed down like a Mercedes on the Autobahn, grabbing what I needed and making a fast exit. Instead, I savored the rare experience, exploring every aisle and reading lists of ingredients before making choices.

I indulged in pondering the redundancy of the label “organic wild blueberries” on a bag of frozen fruit until discovering a non-organic version of the same cultivar. While loading my cart to near capacity, I began singing along with a disco Gloria Gaynor—including hand gestures — without self-consciousness:

“Go on now, go, walk out the door
Just turn around now
You’re not welcome anymore…

I felt a sense of serenity as I left the store and spied a taxi within minutes. But when an irate tourist tried to claim rightful ownership of it, placing his hand on my right shoulder, I shrugged it off as I stepped into the cab.

His girlfriend wasn’t complicit. “Why are you doing this, Jake?”

“Because he’s a cunt!” he said.

Definitely from out of town.

While I couldn’t detect any discernable accent, I felt safe in ruling out Canadian.

It was the first time I’d ever been called the “C” word — in the third person! — a word learned as a boy in Pennsylvania never to use unless I was willing to suffer the consequences, and only as a last resort. Like kicking a guy in the balls, it was the nuclear option.

“Fine! We’re coming in with you!” he said.

As I sat down and placed the bag on the floor in front of me, I considered asking them where they were going. Maybe they needed directions. In the few seconds I took to deliberate, he shouted, “Okay, then we’ll take your food!”

The words snapped me out of my denial. I tried sliding the door closed, but his head and half of his torso were already inside, his arms reaching for the bag at my feet. His girlfriend shrieked in escalating volume. “Jake, stop! STOP!”

I pushed him away with my left arm while my right held the door from opening further. I thought of punching him in the face, but I was struck by his resemblance to my dentist, a gentle man from Cairo. What kind of a person hits their dentist in the mouth?

I tried pushing him away with my feet, but I was afraid of crushing the groceries. With both arms I pushed him out the door. He stumbled backwards, pulling with him half of the bag’s contents, which fell onto the street.

I slammed the door closed. The adrenaline rush was palpable: my body was shaking and my heart was racing.

The driver uttered his first word. “Wow!”

“Yeah, I know.” I was out of breath. I considered giving the cabbie my address and making a clean break for it, but it was now a fight-or-flight situation. I knew what I needed to do.

“Driver, I gotta go out there and get my food. Cover me.” I opened the door and stepped out of the taxi.

Packages of food were scattered on the street like stars in a constellation. Jake stood back from the mess, on the sidewalk and next to his girlfriend, who was now silent. I looked to assess whether he had calmed down or was gearing up for a second round. Alternating glances between the destruction and the vandal that created it, I shook my head. I squatted down to retrieve bags of frozen broccoli and berries, shoveling them onto the splayed bag.

“That’ll teach you a lesson the next time you try that,” he said, though his words of victory belied what sounded like an attempt to alleviate his guilt.

He was slight of build, with wavy black hair and a manicured beard. His girlfriend, a pretty woman with long and straight dark hair, looked Southeast Asian. Both were well dressed. No one would take his appearance for that of a maniac.

“You’re a fucking asshole, Jake!” I said in my best baritone voice, wondering whether to take off my parka and flex.

His silence suggested agreement. Though his elegant girlfriend stood next to him, she looked embarrassed. I doubted he’d get laid later that night. Defending a woman’s honor may be considered valiant, but getting into a battle with someone over a taxi is hardly suitable behavior for any knight in shining armor.

I bent down to collect the rest of the items, including a carton of almond milk that had made its way under the taxi. Other than a few nicks and bruises, none of the packaging seemed seriously damaged. No broken glass, no open wounds, and nothing appeared to be leaking. I was glad I hadn’t purchased eggs.

I wrapped the makeshift bag around my groceries to form a bundle, climbed back into the taxi, and shut the door.

“That was crazy!” the driver said as I concentrated on taking slow, deliberate breaths. My sympathetic witness tempered my feelings, adding credence to what I myself might later have difficulty believing. That the reaction came from a New York City taxi driver — some known to have delivered babies! — was even more consoling. He confessed this had been a first for him.

“I’m still shaking,” I said.

As we got closer to my building, I smelled food. Freshly cooked food. But I didn’t remember buying any.

“Sir, by any chance are you eating anything up there?”

“No. I ate a while ago. You’re my last fare.”

“Oh, so you saved the best for last, huh?”

He laughed.

Then I remembered the lasagna I took from the party. Had they heated it up for me? I decided to stop thinking about it as I ripped open a protein bar. I’d be home soon. I was just glad to be going home.

“You did the right thing,” he assured me. “If you got into a real fight, the cops would have come, and you’d have a bigger problem on your hands.”

“Thanks for saying that.”

I knew he was right, but I had a nagging feeling that I should have done something that would have put me in the position to say, “That’ll teach you not to mess with me.” Though I have big muscles, I’m no ninja.

When I got home and started unloading my groceries, I examined each item. Other than the banged-up carton of almond milk, everything seemed to be intact. But what was that smell?

Bundled up inside the makeshift bag was a smaller paper bag. I didn’t recall carrying such a bag, nor did I remember picking it up. But I’d been under duress when recovering my groceries. It wouldn’t have surprised me if I had picked up discarded cigarette butts lying on the street.

Inside the bag was a take-out box containing the source of the mystery smell: half a chicken on the bone. It wasn’t cut into pieces at the joints — American style — but hacked with a cleaver into four segments. There were grill marks seared onto its skin. The chicken lay on a huge bed of fresh baby greens with wedges of lemon and thin slices of red onion.

Then it hit me: The food had belonged to the millennial couple. Jake must have dropped it onto the street before he broke into my cab to take my food.

It looked and smelled delicious.

It tasted even better.

 

Dean Wrzeszcz, a contributor and former copy editor at Gay City News, passed away from complications of COVID-19 on April 3. Ever the exacting craftsman, he was fine-tuning this essay — already primed for publication — at the time of his death. Gay City News thanks Dean’s sister, Victoria Wrzeszcz, for granting permission to publish this piece, and also Dean’s friend Court Stroud for facilitating the publication.

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