I stood at the corner by the diner lost in thought waiting for the stupid red hand to turn into the stupid little man. I thought about something that seemed really important at the time, but that I’m having trouble recalling now. It was work, or a girl, or something. Normal stuff, really. The kind of utterly regular garbage a person spends so much of their life obsessing over that is, in the end, completely unimportant. It’s funny what your brain thinks is important in the moment.
Anyway, I was at this corner, waiting to cross so I could go down into the subway and then to work, which was really exciting. The air was crisp with the onset of autumn and I was wearing a jacket. Morning was bustling with people on their way to work. Garbage trucks roared down the street collecting the diverse refuse of the neighborhood. The day was starting like thousands of others had.
And then behind me I hear a man’s voice say, “Excuse me, sir?” I turned around because I am, apparently, one of those people that always looks like he knows how to get everywhere and so am asked regularly for directions. Prepared to tell this guy that Grand Street is four blocks down, he just has to keep going, I was shocked to see him standing there in what I thought at the moment was one of those Renaissance Faire costumes, but which I would later learn was formal wear of the late 18th Century.
“Uh…” I couldn’t say anything I was so shocked by this guy’s appearance. I lived in a particularly funky neighborhood in Brooklyn and I was used to seeing people dressed up in all sorts of crazy shit—dudes in dresses, chicks like they’re from the 1940s, people riding those weird tall old bicycles. But this guy in his crazy history outfit had me dumbfounded. I eked out, “Yeah?” after a moment.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but I seem to be a little lost. Where, exactly, am I?” he asked.
“This is the corner of Metropolitan and Union. Where are you trying to go?”
“No no, what I meant was, what city is this?” he asked. I had heard this question before, but this guy didn’t seem like he was on drugs. There’s a big difference between “what city is this” and “what fucking city is this, man, why so many fucking gargoyles”. Sometimes you can just tell. And there at the corner I could tell that this guy was being straight with me.
“You’re in Brooklyn. Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” I said, struck with a sense that I knew this guy from somewhere.
“The very one.”
“This looks nothing like Brooklyn as I knew it. All of these buildings. Where are the farms? Where did all these people come from?”
“Uh, probably further out? By Canarsie? I don’t really know.”
“This is so strange…” he said and looked away, confusion painting his face with a scowl.
“Well, at least you know where you are now, right?” I said hoping to cheer him up a little. I never liked feel disoriented or lost, and I saw that this guy felt both. “Where did you think you were? Or, uh, where are you supposed to be?”
“Philadelphia. I was there last night. I went to bed and the next thing I knew, I was walking up behind you.”
“Been there, man. Been there. Say, do I know you from somewhere? You look really familiar…”
He grabbed the lapels of my jacket and stared at me wild-eyed, fear, not madness, driving him. “What cruel joke is this!? Who are you?! What is this place?! What are these machines?!” and he waved his arm at the cars on the street.
He let me go and bent over at the waist clutching his face.
“Hey, buddy, can I help you?” I asked.
“Tell me the truth, where is this strange place?”
“Like I said, Brooklyn, New York, United States of America. Manhattan’s that way. Queens is that way. The Bronx and Staten Island are other there somewhere.” He looked woozy as hell, so I grabbed his arm. “Hey, you look like crap man. Come over here,” and led him to a stoop to sit on.
“This must be some vile dream. Some nightmare. This cannot be real,” he said.
“Yeah, life can seem that way, sometimes, you know? Unreal?”
He looked up then and his eyes met mine and I knew that he meant business. Suddenly I began to feel a little of the distress he was feeling. “You said this was the United States of America. I’ve never seen anything like all this before,” and then to himself, “is it possible I’ve just missed it? How could a man miss this?” He turned his head a bit, striking a classic portrait pose unconsciously.
And right then I knew where I knew this guy from. I reached into my pocket and pulled the 2 dollar bill my grandfather had given me years before that I kept for good luck and held it out. I folded the sides back so that it was just the picture on the front. Thomas Jefferson. This guy looked just like the drawing of Thomas Jefferson. “You know, buddy, you look just like Thomas Jefferson.”
“Well, that’s not surprising at…wait a moment. You just said I look like Thomas Jefferson?”
“Yeah, look,” I said and held out the 2 dollar bill for him to see. “See? Pretty similar, I think.”
“I have stepped into some strange nightmare realm. Lord,” he asked the sky, “why hast thou forsaken me? What have I done to deserve such torture?”
“What is your name, anyway? I’m Jacob.”
“Thomas. Thomas Jefferson.”
“Hey, that’s pretty funny. You look like him AND you have the same name as him. What a trip,” I said. He just buried his head in his hands. “Well, Thomas Jefferson, I’m going to be late for work so I was thinking I might as well just not go at this point. No one there will miss me. I got some pretty good coffee back at my place. Maybe you should come over, cool off a little, and we can drink some coffee and figure out how you’re supposed to get wherever you’re going, huh?”
“Yes, thank you. Perhaps that is the best idea right now.”
“Definitely. Come on. It’s just this way a few blocks.” On our way to my place, I tried to make further small talk but he was too bewildered by the neighborhood sights to talk. So, I pulled the phone from my pocket and dialed my friend. “Henry, hey it’s Jacob….Nah, I’m not going today….I don’t care what he said. He’s a son of a bitch and can go to hell. But that’s not what I called….Yeah, ok….Henry, I called because I know how you like history and all and, man, do I have someone you’re going to want to meet….Yeah, right now….No, it can’t wait….My place….Yeah….And, hey, do me a favor and pick up some sandwiches or something on your way over….No, I don’t care what kind, just make sure to get at least three. This is going to blow your mind.”