Michael Bettencourt

november 2005

The Fallen Ice Cream

He stood there the way a rock stands in the way of water – intrusive yet harmless, blatant but easily forgotten.  Dark-skinned, wiry-tough, clad in blue nylon running pants, same-color sleeveless sports-top (maybe team-logo'd, but I can't remember). Sneakers, yes, but I can't remember if they were street-gnawed, or new/newish, or even laced versus velcro'd. 

No, what I remember most (or at least first), aside from his flow-around blue clothes and chocolate skin was the angle.  Facing me, his upper torso leaned to my left, with a slight twist at the waist, so that he seemed ready to fall over leading with his right shoulder but hadn't really gotten around to giving in to gravity yet – not hovering or suspended – nothing that dynamic – but more like hanging, like an unseen cable dangled him permanently lop-sided – not a cable very well anchored, either, since he swayed – no, lilted – from side to side.

Below the waist – the waist as a kind of hinge – his legs, knee-locked, were  also torqued slightly to the right, the way the legs of  someone palsied  have their own cosine or tangent.

I didn't think it then but I thought it later – if his arms had been to the side, slightly Y'd upwards, it would've been a Christ-pose, the way the Christ figure, usually as he's being lowered, has that lean to him that signals deletion – the fatalistic crucifix-shrug.

I came to his attention because as I was salmoning my through the sidewalk crowd to Port Authority, I pulled my little rolling backpack over something that got tangled in its wheels – his jacket, as it turned out, laying right out there as if it were trash.  He, for his part, had planted himself  mostly in the crosswalk, just off the crippled ramp, and when he saw me struggling to unfix his coat from my wheels, he yelled at me – nothing intelligible, just something warningish, something in the vocabulary of territorial.

At this point no one wanted anything to do with us.  Eyes up, feet forward, trajectory clamped – the New York pedestrian autopilot.  But I couldn't ignore him – I had wheeled over his coat, for Christ's sake, was trying to disengage it and put it somewhere where it wouldn't get foot-rollered, all the while having him volley at me  gargled curses spat sideways because of his lean.  How could I ignore how his humanity leaned on me?

Finally, I got the coat free and hung it over a mail box bolted to the corner.  Just as I did that, the cable let loose, and over he keeled.  Did I mention he had something ice cream-ish in his left hand? How could I have forgotten that?  In one sense it's the whole point of the whole story.  In any case, he had something ice cream-ish in his left hand, which, following the laws of bum-physics, fell in synch with him.

The scenario: who is going to pick him up?  Only one to answer the call.  So I stashed the backpack to the side (wedging it out of the flow so that someone wouldn't nab it while I was doing my samaritan thing) and walked over to him.  He was still gargling his curses, though from this nearer point I got dribs and drabs of actually words, of actual whining, grimy lamentation about his disrespected coat and toppled ice cream. 

Now, about lying on a New York City Street in the month of boiling August. Imagine the DNA layering of spat gum, hawked spit, sweat-mist, in addition to the asphalt exude, the paste made of tire dust and leaked oil and pigeon pee – one does not lie on the sweltered August street unless all illusion has given you up and nothing means everything to you.  Not to mention the juggernaut taxis making tread-meal out of your body parts.

I did what I had to do: I stuck down my right hand and told him to grab on.  And before long he was upright/swaying again, refusing to meet my eyes and dribbling out his complaints against the universe.

And here is what went through my mind.  First, my hand on his – what will it find, exchange – all right, be  infected by.  Second, the touch of skin against skin – I don't know what  I expected to feel when I felt his hand, but I felt something – unique? no, not that – alive. Corded, tough, sandpaper'd, gripping – he clamped on my forearm, and I levered him.  To help himself he also used the ice-cream hand, and smeared across the shirt-cuff and caked on the forearm hair: sticky used-ice-cream residue. Not unlike the gumbo on the street surface.

Got him vertical, got him to hear me ask if he was okay.  (When he'd hit the pavement, he hit it solid – I felt the seismic vibration in my shoe soles).   He let on he was okay – then started in again on the lost ice-cream (which had now become one with the street stew).  So I snagged a buck out of my back pocket and told him to go around the corner and get a replacement. 

I don't know what people saw when they saw us.  All I knew was that he had taken me  out of the moment – no, helping him had taken me out of the moment.  Before that, before reaching down, I still had the ability to virtualize him – turn him into an image, a stereotype, an icon of some peevishness of my own about the city – keep him two-dimensional and ignorable.

But once the live hand came to the live hand – no, I take that back, not then. When the impulse came to the shoulder to lever the arm down and scissor open the hand – that's when the distance collapsed into contact, and once contact is made, it's impossible to deny the shared liveness.  You can deny it , of course – but that's all mouth-music. When contact is made, it's made – and in being made remakes everything. 

Handing him a dollar, feeling his weight lean against my grip which pulled on my bicep and shoulder – that was some of the best evidence that day that I was actually alive and out of the endless loop of chatter and crankiness that passes for higher cerebral activity in my head. 

Such moments snatched – they split the husk, they drown the bastard named ego, they smell of meaning.

Of course, I thought, as I got my bag and started up to the station, a good anti-bacterial  hand-washing as soon as I got home.  Thus is the  nature of this absurd life –thoughts of good deeds, thoughts of germs.  We can get infected in so many interesting ways.

This is my definition of real theatre.


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About This Article


©2005 Michael Bettencourt
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt has had his plays produced
in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the




november 2005

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