Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!


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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The Watchman

When I left the road, and dark itself, I entered under a great canopy of trees - thick, high trees, collected together as to black out the stars. By day they separate to let in the sun, but at night they huddle together like a school of fish against the mammoth, hungry whale.

I can’t see the hand in front of my face, and here must I walk what seems a hundred miles to turn the little light by my bed. All is still and quite on the winding road, not even a leaf making a peep. I listen some more, waiting for my cat’s eyes to open and show me the way, but all I can see and hear is the salt-air in my nose. How will I make it to the little light by my bed.

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Passing Trains

The place; Grand Central Station.  The time; 2:59 a.m..

“They’re like ghosts,” said the pretty girl on the platform.
“They always leave on track 109,” she added.
“I don’t understand, there must be five thousand people.”
“Oh, don’t worry; there’ll be plenty of seats.”
“Look at all the luggage; are they going to the moon?”
“Maybe, or a bit farther,” the pretty girl replied.

If this seems strange, it was.  I was taking the night’s last train to Pelham, on the New Haven local, yet the conductor called all destinations via the Hudson River line, “Pelham Hudson River Express, now departing,” he yelled.

Something about late night travel, its mysterious adjustments of clocks, those few hours tucked in between solitude and twilight, traveling short suspensions over spans of transient time. 
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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)


15 Cents

The place was so big they had their own post office – not a hole-in-the-wall store front – but a substantial brick and concrete affair with a loading dock large enough to accommodate several trucks.  On the grounds of Maryknoll, a picturesque seminary of massive stone buildings situated among the pastoral hills above Ossining, New York -- it was the stamping and collection center for friends and missionaries reporting in from around the heathen globe. 

For all practical purposes, Maryknoll seemed the West Point of the Christian world, a place where serious young men dressed in ankle-length black robes marched single file each evening chanting to silent, yet intense inner drums.  Such an imposing sight to see when they appeared, moving against the dark as ghosts circling a defense of Notre Dame -- robbed, wood-beaded soldiers of God as black as any invading army.
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Buddha's Bridge

I met him hitchhiking.  He was sitting under the 101 overpass in Ventura, California, leaning on a backpack rolling a cigarette.  The rain had stopped, yet he sat as if he had all the time in world. 

A few days earlier I had been in Oklahoma riding with a devout racist trucker.  “Niggers ain’t no fuckin’ good” he said with veins popping from his thick red neck.  I didn’t agree one way t’other, not even with my best shit-kicker accent.  “Every chance I git, I git me a nigger, see;” he yelled over the engine while unzipping his sleeper curtain, exposing the substantial one-man arsenal loaded behind the seats.  “You know how many niggers I kilt?”  I guessed – a lot --  as he forced his tractor-trailer down the Oklahoma road.   “Every time I go up to D’troit, I git me one.”  I hesitated to ask this species of tattoo in coveralls how many times he’d been to Detroit, but I guessed -- a lot.

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A Passing Snow

This memory has haunted me for more than thirty years.  It comes unannounced to wrap me in chains of dead-heavy guilt, in the weight of oppression, plaguing me when I might least expect it.  A moment ago I was lying in bed reading a pleasant story – about a likable fellow describing his room in New Orleans.  Then, with my mind on my pillow and visiting a comfortable place, suddenly that devil came to haunt me again.

This is an exorcism, and an epitaph, to rid my sin and its dark accomplice, and to let you know the good dog she was.  Until this moment not a word has been said, not a memory of her life spoken or recorded.  And who would recall a dog who lived tethered to a tree, who gave her short life to an earth of trouble in every season.

I first saw her from my attic room.  My window faced the narrow side street in an older, middle class, well kept neighborhood...  

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How Men Are

It’s three o’clock in the hot afternoon, yet I sit in a coolness away from the 100 degree heat.  I’m inside the Wendy’s in these parts, new, and just opened spic-n-span.  And after their busy lunch, the counter girls lean this way and that, tired but glad the noontime burger-rush is over.  Only a few eaters at the tables now, pausing, sitting away from the hot August afternoon.

So, you see, I’m just sitting there watching casually through my 99-cent salad.  Next to the east window, the one plastered in blaring canary decal, a little boy sits with his father.  I know the boy’s age because I’ve known 3-year-olds before.  Actually, at three he comes out with dad all little man.  Never mind his just-three-weight and size zero sandals, or the bunny leaping across his tiny Walt Disney T-shirt.  As anyone can plainly see, this little boy has no idea of small in his immense imagining mind, no, not when he comes all this way out with his dad.  Yet, I tell you, he was little, as little as he could be.

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Woman In Black

In the New York suburbs, there was once a vibrant, old-world neighborhood.  There, the men worked with their hands, cutting stone, laying bricks, forming cement, planting trees, building monuments.  Hardly a sentence in English, they spoke the poetry of Venice and Rome.

At daybreak, worn trucks loaded with tools of every description exited the small streets in every employable direction.  Waving behind, their wives cooked and tended the children. On the main of their Italian neighborhood, bakers, sausage makers, and small, dusty candy stores playing – in hushed whispers - their lucky numbers.

Yet, the most indelible old-world impression was of the church-bell ringing in the predawn hour, and the scores of women in black walking between day and dark to attend first mass.   


The old gardener, Mr. Casella, has died.  A husband’s garage is silent; his rakes and iron shovels resting shadows against the wall.  On the shelves, olive jars keep the gardener’s seeds, outside May flowers grow in spring.  Tiny tomatoes on sticks show their pale green-yellow, the rising sun waking his vines of red and white grapes.  All looks perfect, and same, as if they didn’t know their gardener had died.

Today, cross-town lawns will go uncut, hedges untrimmed.   During breakfast, Mrs. Mill will not hear her gardener sharpening his tools, or speaking Italian to her trees and shrubs. No, today will be terribly quiet, the grass without its fragrance entering through the curtains to perfume her gilded rooms.

At St. Anthony’s, Sorrento music plays a love song a hundred years old.  Above the scratch of its needle, notes of romance touch the church’s stain-glass window.  Below the rose of purple, Mrs. Casella weeps into a memory of wedding lace as mass bells sing softly from the altar.  Dozens of women in black, kneeling, heads bowed, their gardeners and husbands left in their time, too. 

The mass now gone, they leave in single file, each alone, walking down the hill or up the avenue, back to their quiet rooms of humble houses, their mantles of communions in white dresses and children’s suits.

Held gently in his chair, a sip, a tear into a husband’s last summer wine. Life has been hard, but good.  Mrs. Casella remembers each moment and year, and from the many, chooses not one.  She will live her remaining days in black, until she meets her gardener again.

© 2000 by David M. Molloy

Night Out

It’s midnight, Saturday.  We’re driving across the MacArthur Causeway, east toward the magnetic glitter of South Beach.  Even at this hour, hundreds of cars are speeding past 55, their thousand waving and laughing faces racing to the party.  We, however, are moving in the posted range, and slow enough to notice what all the excited young smiles are hurrying by.

To the right glows Miami, a tropical jewel like no other.  Its lights cast mystical colors on the warm water, then follow streams out to distant seas.  A stone’s throw from our roadway, gigantic cruise ships steer slowly toward open ocean, their decks swaying with secretaries and nurses and construction workers turned dancers and romancers. 

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Hector & Julio, Inc.

It was an early Friday night, and the 8th Street Bag Lady had just slipped in with her bag of tricks. First it was this, then that, until right around six our dishwashers staged an uprising.  Yes, Greenwich Village hosted Marxists, and Calvinists, and Communists, even Columnists, and oh-boy if she was good looking!  Yet, that night it was the comrades of the kitchen who staged a wild-cat strike, walking out on slogans of “Free whiskey for everyone!”  Yet, hardly a hungry eye looked up from a busy plate, this being New York. Yet, it wouldn’t be long before there were no plates.

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Atlantic City

Looking back, I couldn’t have asked for more. It was July 1st, and we were in Atlantic City. I wanted to say “fabulous” Atlantic City, but the superlatives blew town after that blue-eyed blonde winked from the TV, “Hi, I’m Mimi, fly me to Miami!”

It was 1967. We rented a second floor double room on Mississippi Avenue, five blocks west of the ocean. Although I was fairly bright, it took a few fair days to associate Atlantic City’s streets with Parker Brothers’ Monopoly – the game years earlier I’d rarely lost, especially since we played by my free-wheeling interpretation of the rules. I moved my hotels, for example, from purple Baltic to blue Connecticut to orange Tennessee before each and every dice roll, which usually resulted in bankrupting my 6-year-old brother before he finished his popcorn. (Okay, I wasn’t so bright, back then…)

Charlie and me had covered a lot of road and jobs during the months before we carried our two bags up the warped staircases on Mississippi. We had been to “Expo ‘67” in Montreal where we worked the Russian Pavilion out on the St. Laurence River, for about 20 minutes, then slipped out between serving caviar-in-borscht appetizers -- to go hustle pool. Next we were on the tip of Long Island tossing table-side Caesar salads, that is, until we slipped out to go hustle pool. Then it was a lobster joint in Huntington Harbor (Long Island) called “The Mooring”, and if I remember correctly, we worked nearly two full shifts before we drove into Manhattan -- to go hustle pool.

From our view on Mississippi, we could see the others like ours, rooms in long, white clapboard structures facing each other two short steps and one popping nail from abject poverty. Aside from the worn furniture and termite-scarred head-boards, our corner room had long shear curtains, apparently left over from the grand hotels now sitting one decibel from abject silence along the Boardwalk. Yet, the curtains still flowed as light snow on a soft ocean breeze. So, I won’t discount our Mississippi rooming house too much, since altogether it had history and character above and below its threadbare rugs and rusted tubs.  Who knows who stayed there, or had slept in our beds? Maybe two friends like us, two vagabond waiters prone to hustling pool, two friends lucky to still have the shirts on their backs.

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Empire Home

The twin towers were the new buildings on the block; flat, glass, too straight we thought, too perfectly square. Yet, I hardly knew them after they grew up, they, living downtown above the ghosts of lower Broadway.

I remember when the streets of Wall were abandoned at night, when the spires of Trinity Church loomed darker than dark as the evening wore deep. Only spirits, or a lost mariner, and characters, one or two, roaming the canyons of those distant downtown nights. Also roaming, a giant named Brown, and a kid named me.

Back then there was only one Empire in the city, a building so tall us kids wondered how it got built. You know, there were apes living up there, huge apes, and they leapt from ledge to ledge every night after the Empire workers had all gone home. We’d sneak up to our five story roof to sit in Empire’s shadow, just to see for ourselves, and it was true; those gigantic apes swung from floor to floor as if they didn’t care, as if they couldn’t fall.

I forget the year, but I remember 1970. That’s when, from time to time, the apes started sitting more still, staring south, way down 5th Avenue, wondering how they could climb those giant towers rising near the downtown shore. We wondered too, and wondered about the lights going up so far from our midtown roof.

But, by then even I had grown up. Our little building was gone and another stood in its west-side space. Yet, the Empire was still there, over the city, the apes again leaping high as if they didn’t know about towers standing down south. So, now I wondered if the measure was only straight up.

In New York every building has a name, even little buildings you might think were never given a name. There’s the Flatiron, you know, and the Cable, you don’t. So many names I can’t say them all. Some cement, or stone, others mortar and brick, a few esthetic, all functional, many beautiful. But the Empire is most amazing of all, with bombers crashing in -- only to fizzle out.

Murphy’s grandfather told us kids about those bombers, and air ships, and the high railings to keep the wild noon-people from leaping off. And how the Empire got its colors at night, the green of St. Patrick, and the red-white-and-blue. Yet, he could never quite explain how those apes got up there, nor how they managed to leap up and down, moon after star – even now. Maybe that’s the secret, after all, why they swing from floor to floor, scaring planes, watching the lights, changing the colors, raising the flag.

But the building us kids loved most was the one which walked only five stories up, the roof where we sat late Saturday nights watching the apes not seeing us. Not so scary when you’re little, only when you’ve grown up.

I was trying to remember what our building was called, but we changed its name nearly all the time, you know, the way kids do. Now, when I meet my friends from before, each of us remembers a building named Home, still there, Empire close, looking down at little eyes twinkling up at the Empire night....

© D.M.Molloy

The Wasatch

They're in the Wasatch Range, home of ancient and powerful natures. In spirit, they appear as ghosts or beaver and bears, entering rocks and leaves and earth during the light. No, you needn't be alarmed, because we're up in the Wasatch, above the Great Salt Lake, at night the highest and remotest place on earth.

If you go alone across the tops where logs bury coal between the boulders, and in the going pause mid-step until there's only sky and stars and silence - you'll see what's hidden by movement and madness and motion. Pause until your soul beats its single drum, until Indians and elk and dam builders immerge from the dark and trees and shadows. Stay perfectly still and see the child barefoot in the stream, and all the rivers meet into one.

It's magic, when your heart turns quiet and the fear rushes away. Suddenly, you feel the voices of the mountain, first one, then another, every epoch on every mountain in every word ever spoken. By will or by chance, you've entered the spirit's most secret realm, the moment in time few dare touch. Stay still as long as you can. Forget your feet in the snow, your hands burning of cold, the siren of evil tricksters screaming you must go.


Then, when the voices and images retreat back to the sun, when the clouds ride west and the day returns, put on your boots and medals and gloves and go alone in peace and glory down from the great Wasatch Mountains.

© D.M.Molloy

Desert Flower

This little story happened a long time ago, when I was barely old enough to drive - during the year of dreams.

I remember climbing steep over the Harlem River, onto the Cross Bronx Expressway. I remember blowing diesel fumes under Broadway, crossing the George Washington Bridge, paying the toll, tapping my gauges, and hauling down Fort Lee hill.

It was mid-morning, clear and blue, and the Jersey Turnpike connected all maps west. Behind me, 24 tons of smoked hams, cooling by refrigeration – under me, enough fuel to reach West Virginia. But after I passed Newark, I lost touch with time and place. From there, I remember almost nothing, not stopping in Wheeling, or Indianapolis, or St. Louis. That’s what happens when we’re in transit possessed – when you’re so intent on chasing the sun that everything in between gets lost in the blur.


Have you seen California? Beautiful, and sometimes in places you might least expect. Like the desert, crossing the seemingly lifeless, empty landscape. Yet, I was caught in the blur, even after self-possessing so many forgotten miles.

Then, now, I remember leaving Blythe, rolling through Indio, then stopping in Thousand Palms. It was daybreak-California, where Mojave lizards do their morning push-ups in the middle of the road. Eggs to-go, 200 gallons in the saddle tanks – the fuel jockeys were thinking I might have stolen the truck. I had this face, frown or smile, that looked fourteen. Oh, no time to explain, shifting as good as any Mack-man, twin-smoke blazing high into the western sky.


Man!… what was she doing out in the shadeless heat, standing on the side of the desert road? From the east, the sun had set her hair aflame, her slender white thumb into a bright red stop-sign.

“Climb up” I yelled down. Big, yellow-green eyes, she might have been as young as I looked, a flower grown right up from the desert, a flower with freckles, and an Arkansas girl with a dream. She had seventeen names, a different one for each time I didn’t ask. She decided on Mary, then Sue, and Mary-Sue. Seems she’d been reading movie magazines, late at night, under her quilt back in the Ozark mountains. Been readin’ since she was ten, and singing since she was born.

Except for cat-naps, I hadn’t stopped since leaving New York. Burgers and eggs behind the wheel, fried chicken bouncing on the seat, cokes spilling on the floor. But forty miles west of Thousand Palms, I pulled over at the Juanita’s. My watch said I had plenty of time, that I was ahead of schedule, only a few gear-shifts out of LA. So, Mary Sue and I sat down over strange and exotic foods, then talked about her, and Hollywood. I said if looks counted, she’d be a star - she smiled – and Lord, her looks counted.

Yet, I was still possessed with getting there, always worried a gear wouldn’t mesh, a tire might suddenly go airless. Back on the desert highway, Mary Sue slept as if she’d been raised in a washing machine. Before dozing off, she smiled, “Y’all drive like my Daddy” – no wonder she could sleep like a mountain quilt in a Whirlpool.

This is one of the things I remember, her sleeping, me driving. I had dreamed this dream before, her sleeping, me driving. Ten thousand miles, and more, always thinking, always dreaming. Foolish boy, in love again.

Her eyes opened as we past Redlands. It was then she realized just how far from Arkansas she'd come. Still, she had this dream, to be a star. For a moment she sat there in folk-hums from the Ozarks, in country thoughts worlds away from the star-walks of fame. But then, out of the mountain blue, she began singing with the voice of an angel I’ll never forget; “I was waltzing, with my darlin’, to the Tennessee…”


A few miles west of Thousand Palms, California, there’s a seemingly desolate spot where, once every blue moon, the silent desert grows a beautiful Ozark flower ~ a brilliant yellow against a forever green, with amber freckles blazing across the sands.

© David Baker/Dave Molloy