Count Slima

Can
You Amagine A World
Without Words
Nothing will
Be Heard.
—Joseph Count Slima Williams, 3/4/2015

Camellia-Hartman_Count-Slima_Creative-Nonfiction_AWC

I toppled through the front door of Sophie’s, weighed down by shopping bags, nearly 90 minutes late to meet my interview subject. Joseph Williams, or Slima as he is more commonly known, had arrived promptly at 3:30pm, but seemed wholly unbothered killing the time shooting pool with Kyle, the bartender, as he does up to four times a week with whoever might be passing through. Besides us, there was a duo sitting near the front window, but they paid no attention as I set up my laptop, launched GarageBand, and took a deep breath before beginning this long-anticipated interview.

While I hurriedly get settled, Slima excitedly blurts out, “I finally finished the 47th book of poetry!” before setting down on his bar stool. Every time I see Slima, which is quite often (he still works in the office of my family’s business 3 days a week), he greets me with exclamations kindred to this one, usually upon finishing his most recent book of poetry. He handwrites them and prints them out on computer paper in the Two Boots office. I had heard it a million times (or at least 47), but this time, I begged him to hold off until I was ready to press the little red circle that would capture his words; I was about to take a pilgrimage into the depths of Slima’s mind, and couldn’t bear to miss a single moment.

Joseph Williams was born on December 21, 1949 in Corona, Queens, but moved to the Baruch Housing Projects on Houston Street at age seven. Except for one year spent in Florida, from this point on, the Lower East Side would be his lifelong home. He grew up a “lone wolf.” Going into the interview, I was eager to see the ways that Slima weaves through his memory to share his many anecdotes. When he spoke of his youth for the first time, I saw that his memory is organized like the index of an autobiographical textbook; keywords, dates, emotions, when explicitly specified, evoke memories and associations regardless of where they might fit on a linear timeline. For example, one of my first questions was if he had any memories of Queens, referring to his early childhood before moving to the Lower East Side, his response was, “Let’s see, 1964 I went to the World’s Fair, out in Flushing, Queens.” A teenage memory first, but then, “Also, I went to Public School I think it was 92 . . . it was on 99th Street in Corona.” Hard as I tried to use all the interview techniques in my repertoire, I quickly learned that a conversation with Slima cannot move chronologically—his memories are grouped by titles or signifiers that relate to each other emotionally, or thematically. I found myself constantly two steps behind him, trying to fit everything into a timeline, as Slima jumped from decade to decade through his streams of consciousness.

From a young age, Slima knew he wasn’t meant to subscribe to anyone else’s rules. For many years now, even decades, Slima has publicly identified as a mutant, something he feels he has known as long as he can remember: “I was always a mutant! When I was a kid, I could watch the TV, right, and I could actually smell what was on the TV.” This wasn’t just limited to food—he says he could smell anything and everything that came across the screen. Did he tell anyone about his Smell-O-Vision, I wondered? “No. At that time, if you did, they’d probably put you in a crazy house, because they’d think you were nuts.”

Usually the topic of being “different” or “othered” is considered to be conversational taboo—better not to draw attention to it. Slima obviously does not fit into any of these norms; he is surprisingly at ease while recounting the bullying he faced as a child. He found no solace at home; his mother had passed away when he was young, his father was abusive (“I’d show up to school with marks from the iron cord”), and of three siblings, he had an older brother with cerebral palsy, and two younger siblings he was never close with—“I guess they had their own life.” Besides the occasional game of handball in the Baruch Projects courtyard, he felt little attachment to his community, and his integrated public school was more a site of violence than camaraderie. “When you went to school, right, you was always fighting. There was always a fight. Sometimes physical, sometimes with knives and things like that. At that time, kids had switchblades.” It didn’t stop at iron cords and swtitchblades—Slima’s schoolmates tormented him further by throwing rocks at him, “for being sort of like a freak.”

I had expected to hear the story of a troubled life, but as I watched Slima reach into the back of his mind to share these memories, my heart felt heavy with the weight of the distance between my life and his. I knew that my pathetic “I’m so sorry to hear about this” was void of the empathy these stories deserved, but what else could I say? But Slima has never been one to complain about anything; either time or perhaps his gigantic mutant heart seemed to heal the wounds of his childhood. “I was always a peaceful, quiet person.” Concurrently with the schoolyard skirmishes that shut him out, Slima developed strong relationships with his teachers, who helped him find his voice through poetry.  “I remember my teacher, in the 4th grade, Mr. Braff, he’s the one that gave me the nickname ‘Slima.’ Slima means ‘peace’ in Hebrew.’1 Poetry came with his early teen years; he never studied it, or read any other poets, but claims that one day, he was just struck with the urge to write.

“Want another wine? Kyle, can we get another wine for the lady, please?” We’re 32 minutes into the interview, I’m on my second glass of red wine; little did I know that we had another two hours to go. Slima has made a small dent in his first pint of Stella, a sophisticated master at the art of well-paced drinking.

“Cheers!” We reconvene after Slima takes a cigarette break. He’s finally ready for another drink, switching from his earlier pint to a cold bottle. “I love Heineken! You know what’s funny—” As we ease back into the interview after this short hiatus, I prepare myself for a side note about the origin of Slima’s beer preference: “—in the early ’70s, when I was working at D’Agastino’s, I used one of those pushcarts, and all of the sudden I got hit in the forehead on the left-hand side, and then when that happened, I didn’t realize, but I had this tumor in the brain. And it happened all the way through the early ’80s, I had the tumor in the brain. I didn’t even realize it.”

Just like that, with a breath of freshly smoked air, my interview subject invites the greatest mystery, and what I had worried would be the most difficult topic, into the conversation.

“I used to get headaches . . . all the left-hand side of me was completely dead. When I was in the hospital, your mother always came to visit me.” My mother didn’t know Slima until the late ’80s—nearly ten years after he started getting crippling headaches, “like four migraines on one side.” Slima had been living with an undiagnosed brain tumor for nearly a decade. “I used to try taking a lot of drugs, right, thinking I could at least help those headaches. Illegal drugs . . . uppers and downers and things like that. The right-hand side was cool, but the left-hand side was completely dead. Nobody knew about it.”

Twenty years I’ve known Slima, practically as a member of my family, and in twenty years I never asked why he is the way he is. His form is recognizable from a city block away; his lopsided gait can be attributed to his stiff leg, restricting his movement to a seemingly uncomfortable limp, but you’ll only ever hear him complain about it after a night of heavy drinking. The rest of his extremities are also restricted, his left arm perpetually bent at a right angle, and fingers on both hands curled from what one would assume to be rheumatoid arthritis. Despite these physical maladies, Slima’s face seems to grow younger each year. Most of the time, his friendly eyes hide between the round balls of his cheeks, elevated by his perpetual mischievous grin. When he speaks, he bares false upper teeth, which are even known to rattle in his mouth upon particularly hearty laughs. My family has always joked about that point in a night where Slima voluntarily removes his teeth—a household idiom indicating that the night has gotten particularly raucous. But most notable of all is Slima’s voice. All of the physical afflictions could be attributed to an aging body, but it is his voice that gives away that there is a way that Slima is, this mysterious force left unaddressed. He recites each of his thoughts as if drawing them from a poem—either his own, or someone else’s. Years—seriously, so many years—of smoking have contributed to his raspy timbre, and he often speaks quietly but with urgency, as he is so often on the brink of a robust chuckle. He punctuates his thoughts with distinctively Slima-esque sounds, either one short, rolling burst of laughter, or a repeated “Ah, ah, ah!” or, my brother’s favorite, the dignified “Definitely!”

Right around the one hour mark, a new customer comes in. Slima reflexively turns around, and jovially greets him with his token “How you doin!” The man says, “I know you, you remember me?” I smile, thinking about the many Sophie’s customers who probably meet Slima and write him off as an old loon, or East Village character, who serves no more purpose than surface amusement. I assume that this customer, a roundish man in his mid-40s, was probably a Sophie’s customer from the past who had maybe shared a game of pool with Slima. Slima responds saying, “Of course!” The man shakes his head, almost disturbed, and says more quietly, “I can’t believe that, I can’t believe you remember me. We were both dishwashers at the same restaurant.” Sure enough, they had worked together in my parents’ first restaurant, Two Boots, in the late ’80s. And they hadn’t seen each other since then. This man, James, moved to San Francisco over twenty years ago, and somehow, the universe brought him to New York and into Sophie’s at this exact moment. Slima greeted him as warmly as he would any old friend.

There’s no doubt that Slima possesses magical powers, and an otherworldly love for everyone around him. I don’t hesitate to agree that he must indeed, be a mutant, and sees people, and things, in a way that none of us will ever understand. But while I spoke to him, I kept thinking about my own narrative identity. And seeing Slima greet this random figure from the past, as if he were as important a character as Slima’s fourth grade teacher, made me realize that maybe Slima and I aren’t so different. In two and a half hours, I got a small taste of Slima’s narrative; but I have a feeling that a good portion of it still rests in the other dimension from whence he came.

  1. There has been much speculation about how Slima got his name over the years—most of the theories relate to his tall, slim frame. So far, no one I have spoken to knew the true origin of the name until I told them.