Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!


Warren Street

From top to bottom, 60 Warren once served New York City's restaurant industry. Every office, every square foot of this menu-worn building was occupied by restaurant employment agencies and their pirate-spirited proprietors. At its low-rent apex during the 1960's, 60 Warren Street represented nearly every food joint in Manhattan, and all the five boroughs, including that dumping ground in the distance, Staten Island.


The fat, shirt-sleeved man stood inside the entrance of 60 Warren Street hoping someone -anyone- would buy one of the two job tickets he was holding between his puffy fingers. Just then a seeming youngster, neatly dressed in black and white waiter's apparel, pushed through the coffee-stained, double doors. The fat man hesitated for a sweaty second, but he's been fooled before. The kid looked too young to know anything, much less how to work tables in the class joint operated by the fat man's best client. But the fat man also needed to get a waiter out to Junior’s in Brooklyn, or he’d lose that account too. "What the hell," the fat man thought, "at least the kid’s dressed right."

"Hey Kid, ca’mere, you wanna work a big-money counter in Brooklyn?"
"Not if I can help it, you have something here in the United States?"
"Yeah, in midtown, but ya gotta know silver service."
"Don't worry, I know, but I have to check upstairs first."
"Kid, you'll make money and you ain't gonna get nothin’ better upstairs!"
"I know, but I have to check."

The kid continued on, past the building's tiny lunch counter, over scattered litter and up the two steps onto 60 Warren Street's crowded main floor. It was 3:45 in the afternoon and the place had the pre-dinner jitters. Agency men stood in every one of the dozen or so office doorways waving small slips and yelling over each other into the shifting crowd; "COOK, Wall Street! WAITRESS, uptown! DISHWASHER, uptown! WAITER, BUSBOY, 34th Street! I NEED A COUNTERMAN, West Village!" "Hey, Kid, you cook? I got somethin’ in the Battery!"

The anxious men with the slips needed "extras." An extra worked one meal, a kind of career limited to a few hours. The halls of New York City’s 60 Warren Street were filled with individuals willing to accept this limitation, since working extras was their career. Whether a need for short days or recurring blackouts from one too many intimate meetings with Sir Bottle O’Scotch, meal-to-meal employment was an extra’s waxing or waning way of life.

Countless restaurants around the city were waiting for a “Warren Streeter” to walk through their front doors and instantly fill in for an absent employee. A missing waiter or waitress meant stretching a station into chaos. A missing cook meant flushing money down the drain. New York City is not the place for laid back restaurateurs, except those sprinting headfirst into bankruptcy. The more solvent-minded preferred calling Warren Street, rather than a Chapter-7 lawyer.

This particular Tuesday afternoon was no exception. As the Kid continued down the hall past walls cluttered with cork boards pinned with hastily scribbled job offerings, a man stepped from the crowd and grabbed his arm.

"Kid, I have something for you!"
"Hey, Al, how you doin’?" the Kid responded.
"Great, but the Hawaiian needs two waiters."
"Up in Times Square?"
"Yeah, you'll clean up runnin' that tourist-teriyaki around for a few hours!"
"Jeez, Al, I promised Marv I'd check in upstairs."
"Listen, see if you can help me out on this one; I've had the account two days and I'll sure-as-heck lose’em if I don't deliver."
"The halls are crawling with waiters, Al."
"Yeah, but I can't send just anyone, not after what happened last Friday."
"What happened last Friday?" the Kid asked.
"Mundlin, you know, down the hall, he had the account and sent them a waiter who nearly burnt the bloody place down!"
"Yeah, the fool he sent up there is coming out of the kitchen holding up like ten brochette swords drenched, I mean really d-r-e-n-c-h-e-d, with that flambé crap. Well, he decides to light up just as he’s going into the dining room and, POOF, the flames hit those Hong Kong curtains and took off to the moon! All bloody hell broke loose! I'll tell ya, if the Chinese dishwasher hadn't grabbed the fire extinguisher they wouldn't be anyone's account right now."
"Jeez!" the Kid exclaimed.
"Yeah, and get this; the owner called Mundlin the next day and told him he was going to push him in front of the Grand Central Shuttle the next time he sees him!" Al said, breaking smile.
"Al, who the heck Mundlin send up there?"
"Iggy? Iggy-The-Torch!" laughed the kid, "What's he, crazy!"
"No, dead!" they both laughed.

The decibel level around them was increasing like an unanswered dinner bell... 

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Time seems to sort things out. Wait a year, maybe ten, there’s hardly an answer you won’t find.  Richmond, a place along the way, a town, a city, a heartbeat or lifetime from where the world began. 

Then, it was a beautiful fall morning. Soft and easy by mid-afternoon, life filled the autumn air. Nature seemed to lift the streets up into the clear November sky.  Yet, to look at the sad and confused faces, you knew something was wrong.  Men and women walked along Broad Street carrying bags and packages, but their heads leaned mostly down.  Being a man, the men especially, their hands reaching down into pockets for something that was no longer there.  When eyes met, they looked past and beyond, like ghosts pulled into the sunlight. 

In circles, I paused in front of the department store, Miller & Rhodes.  Purple cloth, black drapes, memorials instead of snazzy dresses and dapper mohair suits.  The windows, now glass-encased memorials, displayed pictures framed in gold, each depicting a yesterday when he was alive and confident and smiling. 

A black woman stopped to ask the time, but recanted, the hour or minute just didn’t seem to matter.  What could I say, a visitor, a person passing through incidentally taking note.  Come back, it’s four o’clock.  Come back, take my hand.  But she walked away dragging the weight of the world behind. 

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Final Voyage of The S.S. Seamen's

Prelude to true events...

            Although I was not an 'official' seaman, I lived at the Seamen's Church Institute located on the water’s edge of lower Manhattan during the 1960's.  To be sure, I'm referring to "South Street", as opposed to the later Institute located at Battery Park (which also has since closed).

The Institute was a hotel for seamen, very much self-contained, with cafeteria, rec facilities, library,  full-time RN, chapel, weekend dances and so on.  To me, it was a very beautiful building inside and out -- and by far my favorite of all homes in New York City. 

The primary attraction for me was its wonderful isolation, peacefulness and 'presence'.  It had the feel of Melville, touched by London, and shaded by ocean travelers both real and unreal.  Many of its characters still come to dance across my mind during the wee hours, and a joyful passage it is.

You might think that seamen, often being a carousing, hard drinking group, would be prone to disturbing the peace after a night of contests and boiler-makers, but not at the Seamen's.  The massive, ornate wooden doors of the Institute suggested entrance to a great saint's cathedral and instantly subdued the lost or inebriated soul.  Not once did I hear a pin, a loud voice or anything resembling a disturbance within the old walls of the Seamen's Church Institute.  Only ship's horn or the late night engines of ferry and tug called us away on journeys of dreams.  

Shall I'll tell you a bit more?   On the door of each room was a brass plaque, which read something like this; "This room donated by Mr. & Mrs. Ballard, friends of Seamen".  Of course, each plaque noted a different donor, and all were appreciated.  The rooms, like the entire building, were clean, yet modest; a wardrobe, small writing desk (w/bible), shaker-style chair, single bed and an overhead light.  On certain nights, though count many, at least one room had a slender leather case leaning by the door, poised with resting cue for battles next on distant felt tables.

Well, you've come this far, so I offer a little secret.  One late night, too cold for adventures outside, I passed the hours at the small writing table.  And you should know, no writer or reader was I.  But then, a scribbled page; "Did ‘I’  write that?  Guess so...and not too bad!"

So now I write...

"Final Voyage of the S.S. Seamen's"

It was, I believe, 1968 when I checked into the Seamen's for what was to be the last time...
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Whale, Dead Ahead!

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...

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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


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 David M. Molloy

(Reposted 5/24/08)


The King of Greenwich Village


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...

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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.

© 1997 David Baker (a/k/a D.M. Molloy)