Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!

6.16.2005

Whale, Dead Ahead!

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From the first faint light of morning, distant, ominous clouds electrified the eastern sky. The late spring weather was turning around, backing up, threatening a full-blown nor’easter. Even the temperature came down mighty cool for June, yet the breeze had not yet given way to the full force of the approaching wind.


~

It was our day off, and feeling trapped by six consecutive days of looking at walls in a seemingly forgotten dining room, we decided to take the ferry from Shelter Island across Gardiners Bay to Sag Harbor. From there we’d drive toward the Atlantic and then down the coast to Southampton where we hoped to find a dining room occupied by bonafide customers instead of empty tables. So, at 8 o’clock that morning, I and my job-scouting partner approached the tiny eastern Shelter Island dock with little more than new employment opportunities on our land-loving minds.

But before we depart for Sag Harbor, let me say a little about Shelter Island. If you look at a map of eastern Long Island, you’ll see right off how it got its name. Yet, islands are also sheltered by their isolation, and such separations tend to attract those who build their summer cottages far apart, so far apart they create castles behind moats. A long walk or short ride between each island dwelling, and you’ll see not another living soul out or about. Thus, we suspected the hidden residents of Shelter Island left before dawn and returned after dark with their lamplights and lanterns well out.

When Charlie and I had first arrived by ferry from the Greenport side of Shelter Island a week earlier, we stopped at the little mariner’s bar about six ferry-lengths up from the dock. While we waited for our tuna-salad sandwiches, the old bartender, assisted by two equally old-salt patrons, volunteered a current history of Shelter Island (c. 1967).

It pays to know that the Shelter Island locals don’t usually encourage strangers, especially those coming off the Greenport ferry wearing technicolor shorts. Yet, since we had arrived to work at the Derring Harbor Inn, and were not wearing such atrocious examples of Bermuda togs, we were temporarily probated in.


“Oh, you work for Miss Carpenter.”
“Uh, no, we’re going to work at the Derring Harbor Inn.”
“What d’ya think, Miss Carpenter owns the Derring Inn!” replied the one with the white beard, bamboo cane, and red plaid shirt.
“What d’ya know, Miss Carpenter owns this whole damn island” added his salt-kick with the silver beard and wearing a nicely contrasting blue plaid shirt, navy-blue captain’s hat, and puffing on an unlit, long-stem, curved pipe – which he whispered between words had been carved from a whale bone back in ‘31.
“No she don’t own this whole damn island, Mike,” corrected the bartender, wearing a red apron below his green plaid shirt – and who whispered back that Mike had paid through the nose for that god-awful pipe after running aground off Istanbul in ‘48.
“Well, if she’s the Miss Carpenter what owns the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, then she’s the Miss Carpenter what owns this whole damn island!”
“Look, I own this bar, and no Miss Carpenter…”
“Yeah?… she’ll give you twenty, then push you off the Greenport ferry and come back tomorrow to fish out her twenty!”

Their three-way conversation continued while Charlie and I first studied, then ate our tuna sandwiches. It had become apparent that their dialogue had been going on for years, including the decades before Charlie and I were born. Kind of an oral jukebox spinning old times and new tales, and going at it seven days a week without taking a plug-pulled break. After they quit Miss Carpenter and the whispered footnotes, they turned to whaling and the harpoon-boats they manned as young men. Of course, this is where city dwellers get off -- from pitching decks on seasick seas, and sudden squalls pushing man and mast overboard amid shouts of “Whale dead ahead!”

The bar was situated in what must have been Shelter Island’s commercial hub. If memory serves, this disguised, offset spoke consisted entirely of one small retail building, letting three modest stores and, one bar. From an inside stool, the view leads quickly down to the water, then across Gardiners Bay to the town of Greenport – the mainland, representing the shortest land distance between us and Brooklyn. The outstanding feature of Shelter Island, however, stood nonexistent, that is, based on the collective opinion of the three plaid shirts. “In the old days…” when not sailing the oceans, the three plaids lived in Sag Harbor, which was, they declared and agreed, “The whaling capitol of the world!” Maybe so, but Charlie and I had already washed overboard when they mentioned ships beyond the sight of dry land.

Shelter Island did, however, reveal one notable feature; its isolation. It’s was more feeling than fact, although the fact was clearly more visible. At night, after work, having waited on two, maybe three customers, Charlie and I would drive around in search of excitement – or at least diversion. If we drove slowly, it took twenty minutes to travel end-to-end every road on the island, but at normal speed we’d wind up back where we started in seven minutes flat. Thus, remaining on the island for the summer, or a full year, would require 1.8 or 6.7 gallons of gas, respectively.

Thus, on the morning of the approaching storm, not even a nor’easter was going to keep us from spending our day off seeking the rewards of low paid work. But when we reached the dock on the remote eastern edge of the island, our minimal car seemed awfully big compared to the tiny ship waiting at anchor. Adding to the rising apprehension, the bay appeared rough, mighty rough, as if preparing to swamp the barely seaworthy plank of wood they called the Sag Harbor Ferry.

“You wanna go 'cross?” yelled the deck-hand as we paused at the ferry’s threshold.
“Yes Sir, looks a bit rough though.”
“You kiddin’, this ain’t nothin’, nothin’ like September.”
“Well, I guess we…”
“Listen, the captain’s fish’n to go, so pull’er on so we can get this tub underway.”
Still, I hesitated, waiting for a consensus.
“C’mon, no big deal, pull on,” Charlie urged.

Meanwhile, the waves were picking up under increasingly heavy, fast moving skies. Our Rambler weighted the tiny ferry down level with the sea, inviting salt water to slosh freely across the fore, aft, and mid decks. Sea spray covered our windows, and the sudden 50-mile wind was pushing wet through cracks in the doors. And, we were still tied to shore.

Finally, a ship’s horn equal to the Queen Mary let loose, and we were underway. The shock of the blast cleared our windows of spray, and us of the car. Actually, that oversize horn seemed a counter to any storm, its force capable of – by itself – propelling this toy model of a Sag Harbor ship through any blow.


We stood on a narrow, corrugated-metal walkway holding firmly onto the flimsy railing. Not hundred feet from shore, Charlie was already going code green and retreated to the car – which was independently sliding this way and that across the tacked, metal deck. It was then that I saw the captain smiling up on the bridge, up being relative. His face seemed somehow familiar, like the animated image I’d once seen in a dusty magazine while waiting in the dentist’s office – an image of a laughing captain going down with his pirated schooner (because he hadn’t brushed his teeth).

I couldn’t hold out much longer getting pummeled on deck, but before I caught the car as it slid by, I took one last squint between the sea sprays at the laughing captain’s face. Then I remembered. It was the barman’s salt-kick, Mike, the one wearing the blue plaid and puffing the empty pipe! And there he was, in all his ocean-going glory, shipping Ramblers while chasing whales over tidal waves and whiskey said tales!


A massive ocean it was, too, as we pitched and rolled, bearing east while heading north, tires and hearts alternately plunging under water. From inside the car it was a voyage charted in cold sweats, code-green Charlie, both of us seconds away from crashing overboard – then only to be remembered by the coming summer’s overhead pleasure boats;

“Percy, isn’t this where that Rambler went down?”
“Pardon, what Rambler?” young husband Percy Old-Money asks absently as he continues searching their 90’ yacht’s mirror-finished mahogany galley for something profoundly more important.
“You know, Darling, the one with those waiters, the one’s who worked for Mrs. Carpenter.”
“Oh, yes, the one named Chas, or Chuck, mashing rotten anchovies into our Caesar salad.”
“Percy, you should be more respectful, and I liked the salad.”
“Honey, where’s the caviar?”
(“DOWN HERE, you silver-spoon FOOL! And by the way, Percy, sweetie, that wasn’t anchovy Charley slipped into your fetid salad.)

Like it or not, Captain and mate, water and waiters, were in the gale up to their necks. And I can tell you now, we were out hunting whale, out beyond love and sight of land, storming the high seas, heaving and plunging through giant waves searching for the telltale sign, the black giant with the missing left eye, calling us ever closer to his monstrous air-spout, his flag -- and battle. The captain was on the bridge, behind the glass, his pipe askew, holding onto anything he could grasp. Charlie and I were out on deck, our Rambler inches from disappearing into the raging sea; “RAMBLER OVERBOARD!!”

“The chocks, get the chocks!” the deck-hand/first-mate screamed over the furious din while pointing aft from the bridge; the “bridge”, that outhouse with a window – no matter, we were hunting whale! “Put the chain up, put the chain up!” he pointed again, this time his finger shot fore. I wondered why I alone had to save the Rambler, until I noticed the first-mate was the ship’s only device propping our captain up. “Let it go!” Charlie yelled, as if I could bear our car going down to become a sea chest. But he was right, so I scanned the deck for the harpoons. The captain was busy and his mate was busier. Thus, I alone spotted the right-eyed colossus surfacing the waves, and my destiny to bring this monster in; “WHALE, DEAD AHEAD! WHALE DEA…..”

Just that quick, the gale subsided, the waves receded. The turmoil on dark gray clouds lifted from whence it came, turning light, then milk against the clearing skies. Sag Harbor lay quiet and peaceful ahead. The captain was upright, his pipe adjusted and lit, while his mate hurried to straighten the deck. Charlie and I leaned wet and wrung against the Rambler, wondering if we had just shipped through a fish tale told from books. Yet, it wasn’t such at all, as seawater spilled from rambled doors and whaler’s shoes.

Yet, I say, if there was a dream dreamt that day, then let its ship prowl the seven seas. Let it search ‘till it finds that villainous monster, and brings him in strapped under the S.S. Sag Harbor!

~

If you’d like to whale along the coming seasons of summer or fall, remember what the mackerel-faced mate said as we pushed our car onto shore; “You really want to see somethin’, cross in September!” Yet, our Rambler had other ideas as it coughed and sputtered, shooting tempests of sea from its rear pipe into the ocean’s face. Yes, it cleared its muffler of whetted salt and baby crabs as no ifs to say, “Keep your whales and sail your seas, we’ll be ramblin’ high, dry land well clear of whales and bay!”



© D.M.Molloy
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6.08.2005

Loxahatchee News

You may recall my neighbor, Mrs. Ingram. For the past several weeks she’s been preoccupied with a particular flower pot, the same flower pot she asked me to pick up for her last year. “Just one of those red clay ones,” she said, “you know, ‘bout yeah-high and yeah-wide,” her aging hands indicating height and diameter. “Better get a bag enough of potting soil, too” she added.

Mrs. Ingram lives in a small house in fair need of a new coat of red paint. She has an oversize dog named Glory, and boy, does his personality remind me of Tinker. When he’s restless, she puts him “out on the acre” for the night. And when he’s out, on patrol, he rounds my tent by the hour, often sitting by the flap waiting for a hand-check. He also knows about the two wild pigs living out back, and makes them no trouble – and the pigs oink likewise.

Mrs. Ingram is a private person whom, aside from Glory, lives alone. Once or twice a month a young woman visits, takes her to the store, spends a little time, then drives off. Not much else I can tell you about Mrs. Ingram, except for her pot.

A year ago Mother’s Day, the florist delivered three beautiful, single-potted white lilies. I know this because the driver, an 18-year-old wearing his girlfriend’s earrings, confused my tent with Mrs. Ingram’s house. Then, he came back again when she didn’t answer her door. I told him to just leave the flowers on her porch, she’d get them soon enough. He was convinced by the tip, and my encouragement to never get a haircut.

A few days later I saw the lilies inside her window. In all the time I’ve known Mrs. Ingram, I’ve never seen her take an interest in anything beyond the interior of her house. Her acre looks the same as it did last year, and the year before that; tall, wild grass around stands of impenetrable jungle. Certainly, not a hospitable place for planting delicate exotics, or growing hybrid corn.

Except for the peeling red paint, her house also looks the same; modest, but sturdy. Of note, however, is precisely where her modest house sits; on the top of a man-made rise, indicating her abiding respect for nature and Noah’s returning rains. A few neighbors thought she was crazy “sittin’ up there”, that is, until tropical storm Irene dropped the deep blue sea onto our floodplain. It was then wading neighbor Sam keenly observed, “That Miss Ingram, she ain’t crazy.”

Meanwhile, I had forgotten about the pot until recently, when I began noticing Mrs. Ingram puttering around her porch. Two or three times each day she came out to move that “yeah-high” pot, a foot north, a yard west, a pace south. The pot moved as the sun moved. Half an hour of afternoon rain, then back on the porch. Her and Glory, tending the pot. From my flap I could see healthy green leaves sprouting up, a little higher and greener each day. And at night, I would ask Glory about this, but as usual, he just wagged his 5-pound tail. Like Tinker who looked after me when I was six, all business. A hand check, then back to his silent rounds.

~

Early this morning, and still half asleep, I thought I heard something. I turned and looked over toward Mrs. Ingram’s porch. Everything appeared just the same as it did yesterday, and the day before that. Everything except her pot, and the new, white lily faintly ringing its morning bell.


© 1997 D.M.Molloy

5.08.2005

20-Mile Sun


(Story & photo originally published in the Palm Beach Post)

There's a place bordering the western Palm Beach County sugar cane fields known as 20-Mile Bend. It's been there for as long as I can remember, and a good bit longer.

I never measured it, but I’d bet if you started at the Atlantic Ocean and drove 20 miles due west on State Road #80 (Southern Boulevard), then slammed on the brakes like a Sunday fool, you’d be sitting in the middle of 20-Mile Bend. It's actually the first curve on this straight-as-a-line, peddle-to-the-metal, flat-as-the-rest-of-the-state road.

But something else about 20-mile-bend makes it unique; it's where river-like irrigation canals converge, rub banks, mingle then move on in their chosen directions. It's also about the only spot left in the farming district where a thick break of pine trees stand like an oasis.

It used to be a place where folks in these parts would go fishing, usually with those long, bamboo poles attached to little red bobbers, and aluminum chairs set down next to white 5-gallon buckets. Whole families converged there, where they’d catch some catfish or maybe gar, which they say is "one mean mistake ya' better not eat."

Late at night, others came to hunt “big gator.” Why? I really don't know, although it seemed to be directly related to extremely large quantities of beer. I say this because at daybreak, when I would occasionally stop by, the otherwise beautiful area was littered with mashed beer cans, shards of broken beer bottles, floating plastic rings from six-packs and pull-tabs strewn on the banks. It also wasn’t uncommon to find carcasses of lifeless beer-whales – bloated hunters, passed out.

Between the hours of serious fishin’ and huntin’ came the quiet moments of nature. Just before the sun dropped into the western cane fields, wildlife would meet at 20-mile-bend. If you remained perfectly still, out the creatures would come, millions of them it seemed. Then, flying in from the west came the “big boys,” great owls heading for the pine break’s natural rest stop. Watching their effortless approach and smooth landings is an unforgettable experience.

Once, as I sat quietly under those pines, a car pulled over nearby, and the female passenger got out. With a box of Kleenex in hand, she hurried into the pines. Then I heard a hair-raising scream. Apparently, as she squatted down she also looked up. And there they were, dozens of feathered giants perched on bending branches and staring down with those huge glowing night-eyes at this terrified interloper.

Churning dust and pine needles like an industrial leaf blower, she ran back to the car, semi-dressed.

Not too long ago, 20-mile-bend was exactly as I described it above, but no more. Oh, they're still fishing there, though the families have grown smaller and they come less frequently. Don't see near as many Bud cans either, sometimes not a single one.

They've put in a super connector road, one rivaling any interstate highway, right through the middle of the cane fields. Turns out ol’ 80 (now 880 west of the bend) was dangerous, especially from 20-mile Bend into Belle Glade. It ran alongside one of those canals, causing more than a few gator hunters to take a flying dip, pick-up truck and all.

Late one recent afternoon, I drove out to sit under the yet uncut pines. The sun, as before, turned Gulf Coast crimson while traveling down west. But only the crows and a few starlings announced its set.

Didn't see the owls coming from the west to land on their assigned limbs, but the fish were leaping in the canals. As I looked east, I understood clearly that time is passing. Before, the view was green, threaded in the distance by a few power poles. Now there are buildings, not sprawling or big, but there. Earth movers are pushing west.

The 20-mile sunset is still glorious, and the smell of black earth still permeates the spirit. But the shrinking stand of owl-less pines now lean away from the wind.

Along with all that is missing goes a piece of our souls.


© 1999 D.M.Molloy

(Reposted 5/24/08)

5.06.2005

The King of Greenwich Village

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The thermometer outside the all-night groceria read 3 degrees. Except for a passing cab's steamy exhaust disappearing along 6th Avenue, the streets and sidewalks were abandoned. Even Greenwich Village’s surliest characters had descended deep into the subways or taken blessed charity to escape the Arctic gale that had roared into the city a few hours earlier.

No, I'd never survive this night outside. My pockets yielded $2.40, maybe enough for a room at the Greenwich Hotel. In all of New York City, this was the only nominal hotel which had, decades earlier, anticipated this night - and my destiny. Occasionally, I had walked under the Greenwich Hotel’s tattered canvass canopy, advertising in faded stencil "Rooms from $1.65". I had imagined what these rooms looked like, smelt like, even questioned whether they were “rooms” at all, but only in briefest of passings. Yet, prompted by the Arctic reality, I left the warm late-night oasis called La Groceria and pushed my way out onto the tundra of 6th Avenue.

The cold, the glacier now moored in the Hudson, transformed the few blocks a hundred-fold with each wind-battered step. As I reached the playground on the corner of Bleecker Street, a blast of Siberian air crashed through the chain-link fence, sliding me dancing and flailing halfway up to MacDougal Street. Still upright, my feet continued one painfully in front of the other, struggling past the empty coffee houses and frost-bitten tourist traps. In the distance, the lights of the inn flickered dimly, a mirage promising survival.

The treachery from the north continued daring saint and sinner as I approached the ancient doors of the Greenwich Hotel. Strands of its disintegrating canopy whipped in the cross-town gale as I ascended the few steps to the entrance. Forcing my chin from my chest, I focused my half-blind eyes on the small iron door knobs, barely visible through the onslaught of swirling snow and hell-born dust.

No use, locked! They've shut down ‘till spring! I ripped my hand from the frozen right-handle and reached furiously for the left. Wood creaked as Arctic wind challenged man and door, nearly succeeding in making us one. Struggling, hinges groaned and cracked -- I braced again, forcing myself half-in, half-out as wind and timber conspired to sever me at the waist. Finally, I forced an opening large enough to allow passage. Battered and beaten, I was in.

As feeling and function strained to return, I stood inside the entrance trying to grasp the scene before me. Although wholly relieved to be beyond the deadly weather now lying in low and evil wait, even the conditions beyond the doors could not have prepared any resident of earth for the sight now opened before me.

The lobby wasn’t a “lobby”, but a dungeon encased within a rough, stone cutter’s walls. Not a redeeming or welcoming sign in sight, its space was absent apparatus or furniture of any kind. A single bare bulb twenty feet above, no more than a flickering tower candle, the lone designate indifferently illuminating the vast, ransacked area. Beaver-size rats could have patrolled the shadows snatching bodies without challenge or notice. Toward the rear, flanked by wide, ascending, dilapidated staircases, was a cage enclosed by layers of dark, rust-colored mesh. Only large enough to accommodate a single form, a pair of eyes peered out from behind -- the eyes of the demon, or a flop-house clerk.

Whatever it was, it was locked and clothed behind the wire for poles north. It was then I realized that the temperature inside was little improved over the conditions outside. Only the wind stayed beyond the heavy doors, but for how long - as it pounded like death to get in. Somewhere in life, you’d think, I had gone terribly wrong, and a night’s survival hung on the balance of zero.

"Do you have any rooms?" I asked . "A dollar sixty-five, plus tax" it choked and gagged, gloved extremity pushing a file card through the letter-size cage opening. "Sign in" it hacked. I couldn't see the entirety of the figure coughing at me, but its eyes were bloodshot from a lifetime of consumption or repeated exposure to other-worldly apparitions. No doubt though, he, a wretched soul, locked in a hellish life, trapped finally by the cage closed in around him. Lastly, it graveled, "room 558, elevator ain’t workin'.”

As I began ascending the steps and counting all my 21 years of mortal sins, the sound of an elevator resonated from behind the stairway. I leaned over the railing as a bent figure emerged from the shaft. "Is the elevator working?" I asked. Dragging a smoldering can of ash, the figure stopped and glanced up at me. "No... ya haf-ta wait..(mumble)."

The old man, a porter, maybe a trustee, was covered in what looked suspiciously like rodent pelts. It seemed that deeper I went, the worse things got. “Okay, get in” he motioned furiously. Then, with every ounce of diminished strength his aging body could muster, he slammed the elevator's scissor-gate behind us as to wake up the dead.

In virtual darkness, he pushed the operator's lever and we began bucking upwards. With head uncontrollably bowed toward the floor, the pelt-clad porter/trustee bashed the lever back and forth, apparently convinced such maneuvers would hasten our ascent. The elevator’s noxious interior was evidently his only realm of control and form of expression, each alarming movement orchestrated to maximize the efficiency of this spastic relic, surely the original Otis Company prototype. No matter that I tried to hold onto the ash-caked walls as we yanked and jerked our way upward, Sir Otis himself would have refused this late night ride on what had to be its last worn strand of 19th century cable. Then, after what seemed a dozen jarring attempts to align with the fifth floor, the odorous operator mumbled, "5”.

I remembered my offense, the bag of Oreo’s I had shoplifted while a 7th grader in parochial school. Sister Catherine Mary Margaret, Superior General and Chief Inquisitor, said I’d forsaken purgatory and was heading straight to hell. Even more damning, she said it with blood in her eyes.

I tripped from prophesy into a dank, colorless hall. Grime-covered bulbs lit limited portions of the long corridors extending on either side, partially exposing a series of closely set doors. It appeared to be a procession of closets, side by side, end to end. I walked slowly to the right studying for a number, a sign, a mark that might indicate the direction to hell-hole #558.

As I passed under the dimmest of lights I noticed that the walls did quite not reach to the 8' ceiling. Metal grating constituted the builder’s material above the doors, which continued uninterrupted the length of the halls. What an odd design, I thought, suggesting prison cells rather than rooms of forced religious penance. Yet, who was I to question the wisdom of flop-house designers. No doubt their architecture incorporated some purpose beyond my layman's comprehension.

What a gasping stink!... Ammonia -- blended with Summer-in-the-Bowery. And the stillness, the quiet. The elevator had since reached its original destination with a deep, gravitational thud, having apparently plummeted down its airless shaft one last time. Except for the muffled gales, no sound drifted through the gratings, not a nightmare, a tuberculin cough, not an isolated hint of the hopelessness residing within. The next sight, however, suggested an answer for this destitute and veiled inn of detention.

Before another step, however, you should know that during the 1960's, Greenwich Village hosted a number of assorted and singularly extreme characters. Most, like the camera clicking tourists and slumming out-of-towners, came and went without notice. A few, however, were genuine odd balls roaming the narrow Village streets from dawn to dusk. At night, a mother’s search would find these lost souls sleeping between high voltage tracks in subterranean gulags, or in darkened doorways, and in parks neglected since their construction. They existed in the shadowlands, responding to inner voices, sponging annually at public fountains, their occasionally visible torments serving to remind each shocked onlooker of their own good fortune. Among this group of lost lives and banished loners, however, one particular individual moved above and apart from all others. Even by the most jaded urban standards, his sheer presence demanded one's full attention.

As I turned the corner at the end of the hall, studying for #558, something beyond caught my eye. I peered through the near darkness trying to focus on the presence blocking the far end of the corridor. Light from the two-watt bulb refused to illuminate the barrier, which appeared to reach from floor to ceiling.

I continued slowly down the hall, glancing at the partially missing numbers, but eyeing the obstruction as I went. Then, at a distance of twenty feet or so, I noticed the object had a rug draped over it; a rug or maybe fabric of contrasting colors set in wide vertical patterns. The colors, becoming vivid orange, yellow and red as I approached, did not quite descend to the floor. When I reached number 554, I felt I couldn't take another step until I understood that which was stationed or planted only a few feet from #558. Then it moved forward, enough to catch an excuse of light, and stopped.

My God!.. it was a huge black man carrying a staff ripped from the trunk of a mahogany tree. Wearing a discarded rug and pair of massive sandals, my eyes were fixed on the fiercest Serengeti head-hunter ever to step from the pages of National Geographic. No man-eating tribe of blood-thirsty warriors would knowingly mass against this seven foot Goliath and expect to witness another sun. Yet, here I was, 155 pounds of shivering flesh and mortal sins -- pitted against a 400 pound rhino bent on the annihilation of everything in its path. The instinctive terror that gripped me at that moment dwells beyond imagination or coherent explanation. Suffice to say that during those frozen moments I experienced fear in its deepest, purest form.

Yet, even when all hope seems lost, the rules-of-the-city rule; never show fear when confronted by dealers of death. As a result of this dictum, panic is perceptively unknown amongst my species in New York, since fearful behaviors empirically lead to defacto suicide, or confinement in a New Jersey psychiatric unit. No, one survives by negotiating the streets with an expression of blank detachment -- thus exhibiting full-blown Endemic Sidewalk Psychosis (E.S.P.); head down, eyes transfixed on purged gum, cigarette butts, and the shoes of man’s last stand.

The sight of this incomprehensible giant, standing only a few feet away, would startle even the most deranged uptown mugger. Yet, I managed to move toward him, one small step at a time, until reaching my door. Only an arm's distance from entering the permanent world prophesied by Mother Superior, I inserted my key, turned, and pushed. As the never-oiled door screeched open, I looked the giant [almost] in the eye. In that instant, the light and closeness failed to reveal the fearsome head-hunter I had encountered just a few seconds before. His ebony face reflected no evil or threatening intent. I viewed instead a huge man dressed in a colorful rug-robe with a thread-loose hole cut in the center for his head, acquiring the darkened hall aided by a jagged, 50-pound Zulu cane. How he came to be standing precisely at cell number 558 was the mystery, but I felt no fear as I entered my room for the remainder of the unfolding night.

I stood inside feeling for a light switch. I lit a match, then another; no switch, no string, no light - another inspired feature of the hotel's visionary designers. I was also quickly reminded of why I had ventured into this frozen purgatory; the deadly wind-chill waiting outside. Yet, it seems the wind had come in, and #558 was void of any standard heat source. The room, smaller than the warrior stationed at my door, may have registered 40 degrees, give or take a digit. It was, however, 100 times more survivable than the streets below sealed in the ice age.

On top of the bed-spring was a mat wrapped in stiff, cold plastic, on which was thrown a single, balled up military type blanket. Opened in all its civil war glory, this burlap and quill remnant measured four foot square and a full sixteenth of an inch thick (except where worn to utter transparency). Not unlike the ransacked lobby, #558 contained no extraneous or space-consuming furniture. The room offered no amenities beyond its steel platform, reinforced filth-covered window, and partial view of the dank, hall ceiling. Given the temperature and circumstance, sleep would come by fitful chance. Absent options, I laid, clothed and shoed, on the plastic and covered up the best I could.

Then, as I looked up, I couldn't help seeing the giant's head through the grating. He was standing motionless, his back now substantially against my door. What an incredible sight, I thought. Was he 'guarding' my sinful soul, or was it simply the spot assigned by his militant inner voices? I thought to ask, but opted to leave it and him alone, since, like the voices, the partition separating us didn't exist.

My eyes opened and closed, but his head remained fixed in place during those minutes, maybe hours. In defiance of the steel-blue cold, however, short dreams managed to overtake my shivering alertness.

Some life or hours later my consciousness came into muted daylight. Yes, the illumination was gladly morning, but Lord only knows how it penetrated number 558. Assisted by daybreak, I appreciated without effort the room's absence of artificial light. I also remembered the Masai warrior I had left guarding my door, but he, like all ghosts, had vanished with the night. Now there was movement in the halls, sounds of footsteps and doors, proving that the floor had indeed been occupied beyond #558.

I sat up on the edge of the squeaking platform and wondered if I had imagined or dreamed the experience of the night before; would anyone believe this demented story of a carpeted, wall-to-wall, black giant guarding my door? This was New York, and between the Hudson and East rivers every floor has its tale to tell, and tell again.

Meanwhile, a better day was calling. The halls were now illuminated by the rising sunlight, yet it hadn’t even begun to arrest the dank and cold. Several men were striding through the corridors, though I guessed none were heading for Wall Street. I reached the bathroom and to my relief found sinks, even a paper-towel dispenser. What luck, accommodations for a well-worn razor. As I shaved in ice water, I peered into the mirror, left, then right, and saw only the faces of men fortunate to have survived the previous night's Arctic brutality.

I walked down the five floors over partially missing sections of staircasing, arriving in the plundered lobby, unredeemed even by daylight. The heavy doors opened easily now, the Arctic wind having gone north with the Central Park caribou. I stepped out into a near frigid, but glorious morning. I stood for a moment beyond the hotel's battered canopy looking up and down Bleecker Street, and feeling rather lucky to be alive.

Then, as I was about to walk over towards Broadway, I was stunned to see my staff-wielding friend standing on the corner at MacDougal Street. He was truly an intimidating giant, as no human dared pass within striking distance of him or his scornful expression. In his African rug-robe and with sandled feet planted firmly in the sidewalk, he surveyed his Village subjects with contempt and disdain. Yet, at seven foot, he appeared regal, his massive shoulders attesting to a majestic strength. His face reflected intelligence behind its fierce intensity. What a terrifying, yet benevolent monarch, I thought.

For a brief moment he appeared to be looking directly at me, but the half block between us rendered my impression guess-full. I stood a few seconds longer, then headed toward Broadway processing images of dungeons and warriors. Before reaching the corner I turned for one final look, but the giant was gone. Only strands of the hotel's torn canopy flapping in a gentle wind.


Epilogue:

In the Village, he was known as “Big Brown.” A chess hustler from up Harlem told me this before proceeding to pick my pawn’s pocket. And so it was that during the 60’s, Big Brown wandered lower Manhattan from Washington Square to South Street. The spirits had appointed him guard, giant gatekeeper of subways, boats, and buildings. At noontime he might be guarding Sheridan Square, and at midnight, the darkened entrance of Trinity Church. Better than any Pope, his size and stare scared the sin out of all who dared to walk the night's foresaken streets. But how he lived the Lord only knows.

These things are all true, my sins, the night at the Greenwich Hotel, and my first audience with Big Brown, the King of Greenwich Village.


© 1997/2007 David Baker (a/k/a D.M.M)

(Reposted 5/1/08)

12.26.2004

Bird Man

.
There’s a swath of rural forest and scrub-land in central Florida where heavily armed men have occasion to gather for their version of fun. And when they come, they come in fast on big-wheel trucks to shoot or run down anything that moves. Yet, it’s not ‘coon or possum or birds they first pursue, but wild pigs caught digging deep for wild tubers or drinking too long from rain-pools and streams.

So it was that fall day, as Arn stood watching nature quietly tending her own, when the hunters came barreling into a clearing blazing their guns. Every creature ran or lifted in fright, until all that was left was a truck, shooting in circles. Arn too had run hard for the trees, crashing through razor-palms, over termite logs and ant hills, then deep into the woods.

When in the distance the guns finally died down, Arn collapsed against the trunk of a massive tree. His heavy breathing was now all that he heard, the forest silent as it held the man hiding in its arms. It was then that he felt the pain and saw the blood, red drops steadily dripping down onto brown leaves and into brown ground. He didn’t know if he was cut or shot, but either way Arn felt its trouble. A few minutes ago he had been admiring the birds while they admired him, but now not so much as a feather fluttering in a tree. Arn closed his eyes in rest, and a dream of the world a bird watcher couldn’t change. He dreamed of other things, too, of life and living, of work to be done, even the crock-pot then simmering his favorite soup in long away home.

~

When morning came, it seemed a thousand birds had taken to the branches in Arn’s tree, and each calling out to the rising sun. Below them, Arn lay still on leaves of crimson ground, maybe dreaming of mornings like this. As the early rays of light shown through the trees, a family of wild pigs came cautiously by. The father, black as night and the size of a bull, hesitated, head up, tusks swinging, sniffing the air for signs of hostile intent. Mother pig sniffed also, as their four little ones mimicked for future references in survival. Then, twenty feet away, they saw Arn, his eyes open and his face white. The sow and her brood moved quickly away, while the bull stayed right where he was, unmoved, until his were safe. Yet, even the wise father had not seen such before, and wondered why the humans had killed one of their own. His parting thought recalled having seen this man, and more than once, remembering he had caused no trouble.

All that day and next, Arn stayed still. When the days became months, without a sound Arn exited an entrance into nature’s wood. For a time the pigs avoided this place, but Arn’s birds took turns standing by, singing or calling, until the man gone into the roots finally took wing.

© D.M.M

11.27.2004

The Automat




Across from the Church of Movement & Travel, where Park Avenue passes over 42nd Street and traverses the vehicle veranda around Grand Central Station, taximen and rail passengers once paused between clocks and 5-minute schedules at the Automat. Before dry-pressed burgers on polyfoam buns, before the era of repetitive transit in universal circles – the Automat was the place to nourish the body without risking the soul.

Shivering by zero degrees, 3 o’clock in the morning, the revolving glass door turns to welcome every entry in. Late travelers, odd characters, even night risers - coming, sitting, and going. Cabs, lights off, doors locked, their Checkers parked outside along the winter street.

Apart from the obvious, the Automat kept bodies alive, like the people who slept deep underground next to electric rails and fast moving trains, who panhandled, or patrolled the terminal’s public phones scavenging for coins. Two quarters for a bowl of hot soup, good, substantial soup, and a slice of rye bread. In the bargain, a chair at the table, a napkin and spoon, salt and pepper, an hour of unmolested warmth - the reward for making it through another cold-hard day.

There’s a guitar with a girl sipping organic juice through a plastic straw, so dedicated she commutes to the city to sing songs to the snow. Yet, she’s still a pretty thing waiting for a train, waiting like the cross-eyed man gawking at her from a table nearby. In the brightness of Automat light, booze-shot eyes, a gold band tight around his suburban three bedroom, ranch house finger. Six tables beyond, conductors compare notes and sip coffee, while twelve tables south a lone bag-lady nods down toward sleep – the Automat warmth a lullaby.

Cabbies are laughing about a rookie, a young fellow apparently too worried about the more-money the other drivers make. This late night the old timers set him up with tales seriously said, about wild, huge meter rides from the airport to Albany or Philadelphia.
"Jack, where you been all night?"
"Remember that fare the starter gave me from LaGuardia earlier?.. well, I went to New Haven."
"No kidding."
"Yeah, and get this, the minute I drop the fare off in New Haven, a guy hails me right back to New York, the Playboy Club on 59th Street!"
"Jeezus!… what luck, how much did you make?"
The rookie glows evergreen, again.

Ladies in white hair nets are busy behind the banks of tiny doors, refilling the emptied brass-lined boxes, adjusting ham sandwiches and slices of custard pie, feeding the people between stop and go. Amongst the tables, a porter sweeps at crumbs and mops here and there, while across the street the night’s last trains whistle their leave.

The taximen melt back into their cabs, "All aboard!" fades through the tunnel, the guitar girl practices chords to an outbound train. Yet, the glass and brass dining room isn’t quite empty, waiting for the oatmeal sunrise to arrive. Until the next rush of coins dropping the slots, a bag-lady sleeps across from the Church of Movement & Travel -- while a writer retreats into the memory that recalls when the Automat was alive.

© David Baker (a/k/a D. M.M.)