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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