I was waiting for the F train on the Avenue P platform. It was drizzling outside while the sun shone to the east – fighting the clouds for it’s place in the sky. There were the usual morning commuters, school girls in their uniforms, businessmen squinting into their phones and a spattering of other characters.
The Russian girl with the long legs and short skirt no matter the temperature; dirty blond hair, sunglasses and the “Vulcanish” look on her face.
The twenty something year old, unshaven, hair pillow combed was listening to something way too loud on his way overpriced headphones. He was wearing ripped jeans and a tee-shirt with a black spring jacket draped over it.
There two spanish speaking ladies, laughing about something and speaking very quickly. Covering their mouths as they laughed as if it were some sort of infraction to laugh.
An older man, maybe in his 70’s, wearing a stetson gray flannel hat, raincoat and walking with a cane. He looked around and seemed to take in the scene. He then leaned against a bench deciding not to sit down as he noticed the train coming in the distance.
Me? I am wearing jeans and a polo shirt with a hooded sweater over it. I am headed to an office that seems to suck the life out of me and I am dreading it. I feel as if I am wasting my allotted time on this earth. I have bills to pay and a family to support, so, off I go day in and day out; smiling at the warden and pretending the cell is a cubicle and that somehow, something will happen that will exonerate me – nothing ever does.
I stood there wondering how many more days I would be squandering my life away. Feeling as if I had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to a lifetime in prison. Here I am, fifty years old and on the backend of my life span – the first fifty were good years, mostly.
The train rolled into the station and each of us ran to make sure we got a seat. The train was still kind of empty because Avenue P was one of the first stops, so I took my usual seat back to the window and facing across the train.
Just as soon as I went to turn on my music, the older man sat down beside me, empty seat between us. I smiled and then turned away. Looking through the artists on my Android I choose Elton John and the album, “Tumbleweed Connection.” The album begins with “Ballad of a well Known Gun,” but since it’s on random, the first song played is , “Talking Old Soldiers.” As the opening chords began the old man sneezed really loud, scaring the shit out of me and making me jump in my seat.
“God bless you.”
He smiled, “Thank you, I hope I didn’t startle you?”
“Hey, who needs coffee, right?” I smiled at him. “How you doing today?” I asked him as I took of my headphones and shut off the music.
“Good now. I was finally released from jail.”
I laughed, thinking he meant something else.
“Why are you laughing? I wasn’t always 94 years old, you know?”
“You aren’t really 94 years old.”
“You aren’t a girl – why would I lie about my age?”
“Well, you look great, you aren’t my type, but you look amazing. Were you really in jail or are you busting my chops?”
“Why would I lie about being in jail? Its not something someone brags about.”
“Its also not something someone shares with a stranger on a train.”
“Why were you in jail?” I asked.
“You have a few minutes?”
Bay Parkway, next stop Avenue I
“As of right now you have a captive audience for the next 40 minutes or so. I would really love to hear about it.”
From Bay Parkway through Lexington Avenue Jacob told me his story.
“In 1945 I had just come back from being stationed at Fort Bragg. I had been released for what they called ‘section 8.’ My first night back at home, we lived at 99 Ryerson Street in Brooklyn, next to the park over there, my first night there I met with my girl. She was happy I was home and expected me to pop the question. I wasn’t ready to ask any questions to anyone. The next night she told me she had met someone while I was away and that he did have a question for her and she was ready to answer him, unless I would ask her first. I laughed, turned and walked away while she cried, ran up to her room and I never saw her again.”
“Did you love her?” I asked him.
“Love? I was too young or too stupid to love. I was 22, 23 years old.I didn’t have a job and I had just been rejected by an Army who were begging for more soldiers”
“What was the reason for your release?”
“Doesn’t matter.” I didn’t press him.
“I got a job working with a steel plant in Homestead, outside of Pittsburgh. A friend of a friend was friends, you got all that? With one of the union bigs there. When he heard I was section 8 he wanted to help me out so he set us up with jobs. The guy I was with, I forget his name.” He pauses thinking.
“It doesn’t matter what his name was, he couldn’t stand the heat inside the mills and went back to Brooklyn and worked at his father’s place on Bay Parkway. Anyway, I was an assorter helper, which meant I would help check over the tin sheets to make sure they were exactly the specifications ordered by the customer. Cleaning, fixing bent corners, weighing, stacking – it was a lot of work. After a 2 day trial, I was given a job and a union card right away. The job paid 75 cents an hour. That was enough to get me a room and board and to be able to go out here and there.
There was this landlady who was running the place, her husband was an officer in the army and he was somewhere in the Pacific. She was in her late 20’s or early 30’s; she wasn’t Rita Hayworth but she had a wounded beauty about her. She kept me company at night and in return I made her feel loved. When her husband came home I moved out and never saw her again.
Each day after work a group of us would head to Chiodo’s for a beer or two. They had a sandwich there that was called, “The mystery sandwich,” that was mysteriously delicious. There was a lady of the evening who became my friend for free. She would come to my room at night and we would keep each other company.
One day I walked in on one of the union bigs doing something with another man in a bathroom stall. He saw me, his pants were down to his ankles. I just turned away and went back to the bar paid my tab and went home.”
The next day during my lunch break, I was sitting smoking a cigarette and draining a Coca-cola when these two thugs come at me.
“Donald wants to speak with you.”
“I am in lunch, can it wait until after work?”
“We don’t ask questions so we have no answers; Donald asks and we do. I suggest you get off your ass and do the same.”
I took that suggestion and followed them through the plant towards his office.
Broadway Lafayette (Almost)
The train stopped right before the station, after around five minutes they made an announcement. There was a sick passenger in the train ahead of us so we will be delayed.
“There was a long hallway between the locker rooms where we changed and cleaned up and the back door exit. As I walked down the hallway I could hear my footsteps echoing and I felt a sense something bad was about to happen.
I heard a lock turn and then a door open. I turned and the two bozos were still trailing me, up ahead it was dark and I couldn’t get a clear look. I slowed down my walk.”
“Keep walking, Mac.”
“It’s Jack, buddy, Jack.”
“Now one of the reasons I was not the most popular person back home or at Fort Bragg was that I had a very bad temper. A big mouth and a temper. I was also very strong so the combinations of big mouth, bad temper and strength – was not so promising.
Up ahead I saw figure walking towards me, he clapped his hands, the guys behind me fell back and it was him and me.”
Across from me sat two Korean women who were speaking as if they were three hundred yards away from each other. Next to them was a Hasidic man reading a Yiddish newspaper. As soon as the train stopped they each stood up and as soon as the doors opened they were gone. In their place came a Sikh, a Spanish man and a typical white hipster; beard, 1970’s style glasses and flannel jacket.
“So he asked me, “What did you see last night?”
“Are you playing games with me, Mac?”
“It’s Jack. If I was playing games with you I wouldn’t be here in a dark hallway with the two goons behind me.”
“They are not behind you now.”
“I didn’t see anything last night, let’s leave it at that.”
“That’s right, because you never saw me last night.”
“Come to think of it, I did see you. You were the man with his pants around his ankles, right?” He walked towards me. I added.
“If you want to erase history it’s going to cost you, Mac.”
“What did you say?” I heard the two goons in back of me again.
“I said, if you want me to lose my memory of what I saw last night. It will cost you.”
He nodded towards the goons.
“Take him and throw him in the blast.”
“Wait, what were we talking about? I forgot.”
I turned around and punched one of the Mac’s in the stomach and then an uppercut into his face. The other Mac went to take something out of his pocket but I kicked him in the balls and then an upper kick into his face. There was blood all over – I turned to Big Mac and he had a gun in his hand and was pointing it at me.”
The majority of people on the train now were ‘garmentos.’ People who worked in the garment district – 34th street through 42nd. You can tell because the men wore Metrosexual clothing, tight fitting and stylish. While the women wore heels and revealing outfits. Two of the men were talking loud as if we all wanted to hear what they had to say; one of them was nodding towards a girl across from them. She put on the annoyed act and looked into her phone as if what was on the screen was of major importance.
“I heard a door open behind me, big Mac put his gun away and in walked two security guards from the plant.
“What’s going on here?” They asked us when they saw the two little Mac’s on the floor, bloody noses and broken teeth.
“We had a misunderstanding.” I answered.
“ A misunderstanding? Well, clean it up I don’t need this shit going on in my plant.”
“OK sir you got it.” They both turned and walked out. I jumped on big Mac and held his arm with the gun, pushing his hand in an unnatural position which caused it to break and then the gun went off. The bullet struck him in the groin and he was down, seemingly not breathing. I ran and called security.”
The annoyed woman stood up and walked off the train. Before she walked out she smiled to herself as if satisfied to have drawn their attention. The two men just kept talking, clearly unbothered by the snub.
“I found the same two security guards. I told them what had occurred and they ran with me. When we walked through the door we found the two little Mac’s waking up and Big Mac in a forever slumber lying in a pool of blood.
They snapped the cuffs on me and brought me to the Police station down the road. I was thrown into a cell. The next morning I woke up and I spoke to a lawyer who told me to plead guilty.
I told him it was self-defense and he said, “Do you have any witnesses?”
“I said, no.”
“He said, plead guilty and I can work on getting your sentence to under 25 years.”
I told him to kiss my ass and I asked for another lawyer. They sent me this kid who must have just graduated law school.”
I stayed on the train, I wanted to hear the rest of the story.
“It didn’t matter that it was self-defense and that the two Little Mac’s corroborated on my story; because they were scared of the unions then and they needed a scapegoat for what happened. Big Mac was high on the totem pole and the last thing they wanted was another strike or walkout. They sent me away to Lewisburg federal prison and made sure the local newspapers made a show of it. “
“Wait a minute – you mean to tell me you have been in jail since 1948 and you are now on a train going to the city so calm?”
“That is what I just spent 40 minutes telling you.
The train moved ahead with a jump, which caused the man’s cane to fall to the floor. I went to pick it up and give it to him. He smiled at me.
“I knew your father, kid. He was a good man.”
“You know who I am?”
“I could spot a Zalta from a mile away.”
“What’s your last name?” He told me and laughed.
“Did you enjoy the train ride today?” He asked me.
“Yes as a matter of fact. I even missed my stop because I wanted to continue speaking with you.” I answered.
“Good. Now you have a story to write about.” He was smiling.
“You weren’t really in jail, were you?”
“It depends on what you consider jail, kid.”
“Were you incarcerated in a federal prison?”
“No, but I did work at Homestead.”
“In the mills?”
“No, I worked at Chiodo’s; I was a bartender there for a summer.”
“You worked at – so this was all…”
“A story kid; I read your articles in the magazine – I wanted to give you a story to tell.”
“So you knew my father?”
“Yes, I was born in Brooklyn, raised and have lived in Brooklyn for the majority of my life. I was in Europe during the war; I was one of the Americans who liberated the camps – one of the worst things that I ever witnessed in my life. When I came home I proposed to my girlfriend, I asked her the question and she said yes. We are still married.”
“Wow…I don’t know what to say.”
“I knew your father very well. We used to have stores in Nashville at the same time. He would come eat dinner by us on Friday nights. What a gentleman; always with a smile.”
“I feel so stupid and gullible.”
“Don’t feel that way – I was a writer once myself and you did a good thing allowing me to tell you a story.”
I needed to get off before we went into Queens.
“Thank you, sir, for the story. Your one helluva storyteller. I would love to read some of your writings, how can I access them?”
He made a waving hand motion which told me, “forget about it.”
I smiled and said, “I hope to see you again.”
“Be well – keep writing and don’t listen to anyone who says that it cannot be done. Always be curious, not judgmental.”
“That what cannot be done?”
“That you cannot turn a dream into a reality. Dreams can and have come true, you know? And don’t forget, keep your face always toward the sunshine and the shadows will fall behind you.”
I left the train and felt as if a weight had been lifted from me. It’s as if I was given permission to continue to keep my hope alive that something could and would happen to make it all worthwhile.
I felt as if I had been given parole from a lifetime sentence and was free.
Maybe it was the story he told, maybe it was the history he lived that ran through his veins that would radiate through his eyes. His way of speaking reminded me of my father and I felt a lightness moving within me as if the sun had beaten the clouds for its place in the sky.
I never did see that man again and although he told me his name his identity remained a mystery to me.
One day, as I was browsing through Facebook, I saw a picture posted of the man, with a caption which revealed his name. Apparently he had died ten years earlier and was an apparition who told me a story and quoted Walt Whitman he told me to always be looking towards the sunshine and the shadows would fall behind me.
Walt Whitman was quoted as saying “Always be curious, not judgmental.” as well as “keep your face always toward the sunshine and the shadows will fall behind you.”