Kitchen Table Wisdom

I was walking home through the narrow streets of Greenwich Village when I heard someone say, in a heavy Italian accent, “Do you want a table?”

“Excuse me?” I replied.

The man repeated his question. Next to him, I could see a table. I looked around, momentarily disconcerted. He and I were the only ones on the street.

“It’s a good table,” the man said. He was maybe in his 50s and looked to be a working man. This had once been a working-class Italian neighborhood, but now, in the late ’70s, it was occupied mostly by bohemian types. Only a few older Italians were left, vestiges of a bygone era.

“You’re selling it?” I inquired. This didn’t seem to be a great way to sell a table–standing on an empty street waiting for someone to come by.

“I give it to you,” the man said. And I saw, in the way he laid his hand on the table as he addressed me, that he cared for it. I looked at him closely. He seemed a good man. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“You don’t want it?” I asked. I didn’t want it, either–I had a table already–but I didn’t want to turn him down too abruptly.

“My wife, she bought another one,” he said.

“Women,” I said. “They always want to buy something new.”

“I raised five children at this table,” the man said proudly.

I was touched that anyone would care so much for a simple table. “It is a good table,” I agreed, examining it. It was made of wood and about the size of a card table, very old-fashioned-looking. No doubt a moderately priced piece of furniture in its time, it now looked ornate compared to the mass-produced table in my kitchen nook. Still, I had no intention of taking it. “Your children are all grown up?” I asked.

“Just me and my wife now.”

“And she didn’t want to keep this nice table?”

“She gotta have a new one,” he replied.

“Does it fold up?” I asked, still trying to be polite.

In a snap, the man folded the legs under the table and handed it to me. “It’s yours,” he said with such obvious satisfaction that I couldn’t tell him I didn’t want it.

“Well, thank you very much,” I said.

And he turned and went inside his building, after what must have been a long vigil out there with his beloved table.

So I was left to walk home, lugging this table I didn’t want or need.

When I got up to my third-floor walk-up on Cornelia Street, I set the folded table outside the door to my apartment, thinking I’d keep it there until I figured out what to do with it.

My building had gone through some changes over the years, as different waves of people had come through. Across the hall was an old Irishman who seemed to have lived there from the beginning of time. He had once been a laborer of some sort. Now he just drank and stayed home. The walls of his apartment were yellowed and ancient-looking, and everything inside appeared to have remained unchanged for decades. Sometimes he would stand in his doorway with his zipper wide open and his privates in full view. Immediately above me lived a bearded, lanky hippie who still wore bell bottoms. There had been a time when the whole neighborhood was overrun with people like him. Now the hippies had largely vanished, leaving him stranded here. A diminutive Colombian cocaine dealer occupied the apartment beside mine. In the end, he was beaten up by the gang who owned the drug trade in the neighborhood.

I don’t know exactly when the table vanished. One day, I just noticed it was gone. Maybe the super had thrown it out. Maybe someone had stolen it. I didn’t really care–not even when I broke my own table by standing on it to kill a roach on the ceiling. From then on, I just sat on the floor and ate out of a bowl on my lap. My life kept getting simpler and simpler. I tossed out my sofa bed and slept on the thin foam mattress. My only furniture was my desk and chair and two bookshelves. Otherwise, I lived completely on the floor, Japanese style.

Maybe a year or two after the table disappeared, I came home from work to find a hand-printed “moving sale” sign on the front door. The hippie came in right behind me. “That’s me, man,” he said of the sign.

“You’re leaving?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, starting up the steps. “I’m going out to Oregon. Things are still happening out there. I’m letting go of everything real cheap.”

I didn’t want to buy anything, but I came up just to be neighborly.

I’d never been in his apartment before, though he’d lived right above me for years. No sooner did I walk in than I saw my table. He’d sawed the legs off so that it was only about a foot high: perfect for my Japanese style of living.

“How much for the table?” I asked.

“Fifteen dollars,” he said.

I considered the price for a moment.

“That’s the same table you threw out,” he added, sounding a little guilty.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

And, pulling out a ten and a five, I bought my own table.

I folded up the short legs as the Italian man had done, wished the hippie good luck, and carried my prize downstairs, where I put it right in front of my mat on the floor, next to the fireplace.

That was more than 20 years ago. Friends have come and gone. I’ve been married and divorced. But I still have the table.

From The Sun (April 2001). Subscriptions: $34/yr. (12 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.

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