Short Stories

Rank

He felt, for certain, that his father did not love him.

and this was a tortuous thing for a young, smart and curious boy from Queens, New York City.

His father’s body was covered with bled away World War II navy tattoos:

battleship across his grey haired muscular chest;

anchor on one sinewy forearm and a hula girl on the other,

US Navy insignias on ship-work chiseled biceps.

A museum of war art on a muscled body hardened from years living and working on powerful,sturdy steel ocean going tug-boats chugging about in far off and dangerous waters.

He brought his ink-scarred body back but his mind never returned from oceans and battles and the boy could not comprehend this male figure head emptiness in his small family.

After the pacific war ended the father shouldn’t have left the Navy but he began a family, one night, on shore leave in San Diego; leaving his true love, the high seas, behind for a life on dry land, which he never found legs for.

The boy got straight A’s in high school while the father took jobs on private boats taking him far from his wife and two boys for months at a time.

During these long stretches in time, home was calm and happy; the two boys and their warm loving mother; but when the crusty ex-sailor suddenly returned he always tried to whip the little group into his personal tug boat crew and his two sons resisted; rebelling against this stranger-father with his weird military disciplines.

In the navy, the father, never rose above the rank of “non-com” boat skipper; taking orders from officers stationed ashore and above him in the navy’s chain of command.

Unlike the land-lubbing navy brass, he was a true seaman; boats,foreign ports of call, cresting swells, storms, combat, heavy lines and the smell of thick marine paint mingled with salty air smells; freedom and fear.

He was a just skipper and a regular lower-rank sailor; he was not officer material.

When his oldest son turned eighteen the bright yet confused young man joined the army; just to get out of the house and away from his old man who just grunted when his tall, lanky, handsome son entered the home and that’s all he ever gave; grunts and old war stories from a tug boat past he was forever stuck in.

As fate would have it, a next war came, Vietnam, and the son was shipped off and sent to fight in the worst of the worst; a waveless ocean of deadly jungles.

Miraculously he survived ; returning to “the world” dressed in an officers crisp uniform adorned with medals of bravery, toting an over-stuffed duffle bag, body unscathed , ink-less scarless skin, but burdened with a memory haunted by a year long tour of hell duty in “the nam”.

The day he came back home to “the world” and queens from war, dressed in his crisp olive green Army Lieutenants uniform, was the first time in his life that his “non-comm” former navy tug-boat skipper father stood up proudly to greet his son, the officer, respectfully at the door …in place of a grunt.

From that day on things changed. The old world war II sailor-vet began paying attention to the army officer and the ridiculous house-rule orders ceased…… but the love never came.

 

©2016 Michael Domino

 

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

Is This Seat Taken?

Is This Seat Taken?

 

The little neighborhood park I usually go to was fenced off for renovations one day, so, with coffee and morning paper in hand, I decided to sit on the steps of a random pre-war, rent-controlled walk-up apartment building on East 32nd between Second and Third. This place is what would have been referred to as a tenement back in the 19th century.

 

The city was very quiet since it was the Friday before Labor Day, so I sipped coffee and read the paper on the stoop. Even on the quietest days, though, New York still has a good amount of foot traffic, so I had to pull my newspaper back toward me to make sure that passersby would not brush up against it.

 

After about 10 minutes, a woman in a house dress and slippers ascended from the basement apartment to deposit a bag of trash. Then she started to eyeball me as she sauntered over to the steps, nit-picking the smallest leaf droppings off of the steps around me. I could tell she wanted to make her presence known and sniff out who this stranger on the steps might be.

 

Luckily, she left, and I was able to stay. Then a guy came out from behind me through the front door. He had long, blond, greasy hair. I could smell last night’s sweet booze oozing from his pores and breath. There were six steps on the stoop, but he chose to plop his big sweaty body right next to me.

 

I read and sipped on. Following behind him a curly-haired guy in a stained gray T-shirt came down the steps. He gave me a suspicious trespasser look-over – just like the old lady did. I was beginning to feel unwelcome on the steps, which I might have guessed wrongly were free for the sitting. I sipped and read on until he spoke.

 

“Hey, asshole!”

 

Oh no, I thought. Oh NO. Here we go again. But the blond guy turned around to respond to the catcall which I mistakenly thought was directed at me.

 

“Why don’t you clean up the fucking cans and bottles you left all over the stoop from last night instead of sitting there like a bum? This ain’t the dump. People live here!”

 

“Who you calling a bum? You’re the fucking bum! Leave me alone, bum,” shot back greasy hair with spit spray.

 

“I ain’t a bum, you slob,” gray T-shirt responded angrily.

 

A husky female voice emanated from under the steps. “Shut the hell up, you morons! It’s still morning!”

 

“Oh yeah!” said greasy hair to T-shirt. “Why should I listen to you anyway? You ain’t the boss of me and besides you don’t even have any fucking teeth.”

 

That was enough for me. I decided the conversation, of which I was in the crossfire, was just going to go further downhill after the “no teeth” insult. I got up and moved down the block to another stoop, unfolded the paper again, sipped to the bottom of my joe, and I hoped I might be able to finish my coffee and the newspaper before another performance began.

 

Just when you think you’ve found the perfect, private spot, you realize that every square inch of this city is spoken for.

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

Streetwalker

Streetwalker

 

I walk the streets of New York.

 

I guess you could call me a streetwalker, but perhaps not the kind that word might bring to mind. I am looking for stories not pickups. It works for me. There is no membership required, no gear or team, no rules – sneakers are suggested, but not required. Walking related injuries are minimal; it’s healthy and therapeutic.

 

When I’m walking in the city I’m not eating and, instead of looking at myself, I watch others, and this is a good thing. Walking is simple and mindful. It sorts things out. City walking affords me the opportunity to do random acts of kindness just because there is so much going on and so many people, unlike walking in the suburbs where I always feel the people in cars are wondering why I’m on foot!

 

In Central Park the other day, I helped a lady carry her bicycle up the stairs to get to the reservoir. At the top, her husband, who was in much better physical shape, was already up there taking pictures of the skyline when the two of us sweated up the steps. He shot me a bad look – as if I helped his wife to make him look bad – but I kept on walking.

 

Did you know that it’s 2.2 miles to walk around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir?

 

On 34th Street, a FedEx delivery guy was pushing his overloaded box cart when it all came tumbling down. As oncoming traffic approached, I ran over and tossed him his packages while he frantically reloaded them into the cart. We both got out of there in the nick of time. “Thanks, brother,” he said. “No problem, man!” I said, and continued on my way.

 

Walkers in Manhattan rule the streets. Walkers in the suburbs make motorists angry. “Look at that crazy guy walking!” they say. They think that the only people who walk in the suburbs are either on medication that renders driving difficult, or have lost their license due to a DUI. In the suburbs, if you’re out walking without a dog after ten p.m., there is a chance that a bored and paranoid neighbor will call the cops on you.

 

Nobody cares in the city. Walking is a way of life here.

 

According to my calculations, it takes me roughly 40 seconds to walk one block, and twenty blocks is one mile, meaning I can walk a whole mile in just under 15 minutes!

 

It takes about 50 minutes to walk uptown from East 32nd Street to St. Monica’s Church on East 79th Street between First and York.

 

There are fewer people on First Avenue so I can walk faster up First. There are more people on Madison, so it takes me longer if I walk that way. I make sure to not stop and pet all the “designer dogs” – the expensive pure breeds that you routinely see. Just another example of class distinction, though I have to say, I prefer rescued mutts, in all walks of life!

 

It also slows me down if people talk to me, which they often do. I don’t mind if they are from out of town and lost. I’m always happy to stop and point them in the right direction. If you want to meet people in the city when you walk, then you need to walk with a dog; everyone will stop and talk to you. You will make new friends but you won’t get much exercise.

 

Of course, there’s lots of noise in Manhattan with the cacophony of sirens, construction, horns, whistles, helicopters, and cement mixers everywhere. People, though, for the most part are quiet and mind their own business. I hear glimpses of conversations as I pass and then fill the rest in from my own imagination. Occasionally, loud voices will attract attention, but it’s usually a dispute over a parking spot.

 

You have to be careful in the city, because I learned that, when violence does occur, it erupts suddenly. At times like these, it is best to move away quickly and keep walking. I once saw an angry-looking guy push a cyclist over into traffic near Union Square! When the enraged cyclist recovered, he immediately went hunting for the pusher, swinging a heavy bike security chain and lock. I happened to be standing where the pusher had been before he moved into the pedestrian flow. In an instant, the rider read my startled, fearful face and processed that I was not his attacker. While I was spared a chain across my teeth, he relentlessly tracked down the pusher, who took the bruising chain across his back. The whole thing was over in a flash, but remains burned in my memory.

 

Besides the parking space arguments, another, though less common, variety of street combat that I stumble into on long walks are what I call bum fights. A bum fight, like the parking spot disputes and bike chain incident, flare up without warning, sometimes right in front of your eyes. Drivers, riders, and cyclists may miss all this action, but when you walk, you see it all.

 

I’ve seen many bum fights, and have noticed a pattern. It usually goes something like this: There will be a few drunks on a street corner. One of the disheveled people will begin cursing and hollering, spewing out angry epithets. All heads will turn and look toward the commotion. The madness is almost always directed at another homeless person and often revolves around a territorial dispute or dereliction of duty. I heard one unfortunate homeless man accuse the other of spending all day long on the steps smoking and not doing what he is supposed to be doing– whatever that was! Another fight began over the arrangement of cardboard in a certain doorway, as one man accused another of horning in on his spot.

 

In the suburbs, neighbors fight over loud parties, disobeying property lines or barking dogs. The only difference between them and the bums is that the bums don’t call the cops or each other’s lawyers.

 

Just as I don’t stop and pet “designer dogs,” I don’t stop my walking to watch bum fights – I am too used to it. I know this is just their way of venting and getting things off their chests, but it’s best not to gawk. This is a live and let live city, which is why I love being an invisible “streetwalker.”

 

 

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

Stop the Bus!

Stop the Bus!

 

My body was awake but my brain needed caffeine, and that’s just what I was aiming for at my local coffee shop that morning.

 

I could feel the presence of others gathering behind me as I looked across Third Avenue at East 32nd, waiting for the orange hand, the don’t cross signal, to become the walking man.

 

Manhattan was still slowly waking up, but the city has always had an uncanny way of catching us unaware, suddenly and without warning. A commotion erupted on the sleepy-eyed corner.

 

“Gramma, there goes the buses. We’re late!”

 

“No – those buses are white and fancy. We’re looking for yellow school buses.”

 

“Gramma, I think those are special buses they got for his trip.”

 

“Oh no, if those are the right buses, then we’re in big trouble. That first one is driving away! Oh, Dear Lord, your mother’s gonna kill me if your brother misses his trip to the country. She just gonna kill me.”

 

The words poured out of her like an open faucet, the only outlet for this woman’s pent up anxiety.

 

That was enough for me. I had to look back. This sounded important! What I saw was a grandmother squeezing the hand of a backpacked schoolboy – fifth grade, I guessed, as his older brother, a head taller, stood beside them. All their feet were pumping up and down in place, as if they were walking in quick-time, but they couldn’t move forward until the light changed. We were all stuck there, office workers, coffee junkies and school kids alike. Each of us had to wait for the walking man signal to let us go. We all had different reasons for wanting to cross Third Avenue but we were in the same asphalt boat together, waiting at the intersection.

 

It looked like a daily physical and emotional challenge for this woman, I thought to myself, early rising and just difficult to corale two young boys to school each morning.

 

“I have never seen any high-class, big ole buses like those for no public school. Where are the yellow buses? Maybe they’re around the corner?” Gramma wondered out loud.

 

The older boy assured her. “Gramma, those buses are filled with kids. They got special buses today, not the junky yellow ones.”

 

Their tension had become my tension.

 

“What’s going on?” I questioned the frantic faces fidgeting behind me. Gramma spoke first and without hesitation.

 

“I get these boys out for school ‘cause their momma gotta be at work uptown early. I live in the same building on 39th Street, but on another floor. We’re late and he’s got to get on the bus for a special trip.” She held up the smaller boy’s hand, meaning this grandson and not the other.

The older brother looked at me. “Those three buses right there, Mister.” He was very sure, unlike his grandmother, that those were definitely the buses his brother should be on and wasn’t – because they had gotten there too late.

 

Just then, I noticed the lead bus begin to slowly roll forward toward Second Avenue.

 

“Oh Good Lord! There they go. There they go. He’s gonna miss the bus for sure now. His mother is gonna kill me.”

 

Gramma was getting frantic, almost hysterical.

 

“Would you like some help?” I suggested.

 

“Oh, yes, sir – yes, sir – please help us!”

 

I inched my way off the sidewalk but the morning rush was heavy and I saw no breaks to make a mad dash for it, but I pushed forward, getting ready to run.

 

The second bus began to creep into line behind bus number one. They were on the move. I tried to will the walking man to appear. “Come on orange hand, CHANGE, CHANGE NOW!”

“Okay, okay, you guys take it easy. He’ll make that bus. I promise.” I promised? I just made a commitment to them. I could not fail now. Oh boy.

 

The light changed and I took off.

 

The three of them, linked together, ambled behind.

Bus three started to roll. I figured that the last bus would stay put just long enough for me to cross the street. That became the plan for my promise. But I was mistaken. I picked up the pace from trot to a full run, chasing after the coach as the hot exhaust rumbled into my face from its back end.

 

Gramma was shouting, “STOP THE BUS!” I could hear the rustle of backpacks closing in on me from the two brothers, but they were still too far back to be noticed by the driver to catch the attention of the passengers – his classmates. It was all up to me now. Just my promise and me.

 

The thought of this little boy sitting alone in a classroom by himself while his fellow students left the city was too much to bear. I had a vision of smiling kid faces jumping for joy as a game warden, in a green uniform, released barrels of little trout hatchlings into a pristine river somewhere in the woods.

Now, along with Gramma, I shouted STOP THE BUS and reached out and slapped the rear end exhaust panel…HARD!

To my surprise, the driver kept rolling along with no sign of stopping for us. So, quickening my stride, I ran faster alongside the bus, slapping it even harder as I made my way further close to the driver.

 

Can’t he see us in his gigantic side view mirror, a man pounding on his bus and a grandmother with two kids all over the place running down 32nd Street like maniacs? What’s wrong with this guy?!

 

He gunned the engine. I began to lose ground and, with all I had left, made one last desperate sprint and caught up to his window – finally.

 

“STOP THE BUS!” I commanded.

The window was wide open. Not only could he see me now, as big as life, but he could hear me too. I was right there! If his intention was to ignore me, hoping I would disappear, that was no longer possible. I was in his face.

 

“What are you doing?” he yelled down. “I can’t stop this bus. I got to stay in line with the other buses. Who are you? What the heck are you doing?”

 

“You see that kid back there? LOOK, LOOK! He must get on this bus! That’s his class in there, man!

 

He shook his head, “NO STOP.” The bus crept forward. At least it was at a fast walking pace now, but still he stubbornly would not come to a full halt.

 

“Is there a teacher in there?” I was quickly running out of breath – and road. A resolution had to come within seconds. I knew, or the four of us would be watching as all the buses drove away. I couldn’t accept that vision.

 

A teacher stretched across the driver’s steering wheel, craning her neck to look down at us on the street. Traffic was backing up behind us. Cabs started honking.

 

“Do you know this kid, this little guy here? Is he your student?” I said urgently.

 

She looked more closely.

 

“Yes – he’s in my class.”

 

“Then please tell the driver to STOP THE BUS and let the boy on!” I screamed.

She exchanged some words with the driver and the bus finally stopped moving.

 

The teacher came out to speak with the grandmother and the boy as I got out of the middle of the street. Clearly, the teacher was not happy and she was giving them “what for” and I didn’t want to hear or see that. The bus driver frantically checked and rechecked his mirrors as the cabs continued to honk.

 

Finally, the teacher took the boy’s hand and they boarded the bus. The deed was done, the promise kept.

 

I went to get coffee. The line at the coffee place was unusually short, so I got my container of hot java to go and exited where I had entered. The aroma was delicious, as usual.

 

As I walked out, much to my surprise, I saw the big charter bus number three, the one with the late kid on it, directly in front of me, stopped at the red light at Second Avenue. I figured they were long gone by this time. The bus appeared to me as a giant white rectangular room on wheels, filled with kids.

 

Every little face in every window was smiling at me, waving and pointing in my direction, as in “There he is.”

Excitedly, they bounced up and down in their bus seats as they headed toward the Midtown Tunnel and out of the city for the day. I nodded and smiled back at them all. I made direct eye contact with the kid I had promised to get on that bus. His smile was an ear-to-ear grin, and at the same time he gave me a “thumbs up!” I gave him my widest smile in return and returned the thumbs-up gesture as the driver made a wide hand overhand turn into the flow of traffic streaming along Second Avenue, leaving a wake of sooty exhaust behind for me to walk through.

 

I raised my fresh hot coffee to my mouth. The first gulp of the morning is always the best.

 

For about fifteen seconds, I thought, “This must be what it feels like to be a Super Hero.” Then I continued down the sidewalk, to carry on with the rest of my day.

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

A Very Smart Shopper

A Very Smart Shopper

 

New York is a city full of health-minded, discerning shoppers. I came across one the other night, right outside my neighborhood Gristedes gourmet supermarket. As I rounded the corner there he was, right at the store’s dumpster. He was a white male about 65. His clothes were not tattered or dirty; his hair and skin also looked clean. I was 100% sure he was not living on the streets. My guess was that he might have a room in an SRO or some little rent-controlled studio apartment. He might have been living off of the streets, but not on them.

How do I know this? Well, he actually told me so.

On an impulse, I had stopped, quietly watching him for a minute, and then asked him “How’s it going?”

“Great, thanks for asking,” he said, clearly a friendly guy perfectly comfortable with what he was doing.

I noticed that he had five shopping bags jammed full of food and all of it looked perfectly fine to me. He said he was especially excited about the Artesian Flat Breads. “They are made with Canadian wheat and you can turn them into Pizzas or dip them in olive oil,” he said. “They are just like the ones you see baked fresh in the Indian restaurants on 28thStreet.”

“Do you cook? “ I asked, after seeing carrots, celery and an onion in one of his bags.

“Not anymore,” he said, “but I do have a kitchen, so I could if I wanted to, but I haven’t really needed to bother since they started putting out the pre-cooked dinners. Whatever they don’t sell that was cooked that day has to go out. I got a dish of spaghetti and meatballs in there. The fresh veggies are for my salad. Why cook?”

“Sounds like Manhattan living to me,“ I said. He smiled.

There was a pile of discarded cakes next to the grey trashcans, away from his groceries.

“What are those?” I asked.

“Not interested,” he said. “They’re loaded with preservatives. I’m not eating unhealthy foods made with chemicals.” He picked up a box with a sugar-free blueberry pound cake inside and showed me a long list of ingredients that he said “will kill you.”

“And no bottled water either. The plastic leaches into the water and it’s some kind of poison.”

“I’ve heard that too,” I said.

“I have a big collection of glass bottles that I take up to Saratoga Springs three times a year and fill them up with the different kinds of natural mineral waters in the nice park up there.”

“I was just up there a few months ago, but one of them tastes like sulfur,” I said.

“That’s the healthiest one,” he said. Then he got busy again, rummaging some more. He told me he has to get there before 10 every night because that’s when the garbage truck comes and takes away all the food that the Gristedes Supermarket throws out. He said that he has to be extra careful where he gets raw meat, and there is a different Gristedes he gets that from. He said he used to get sushi from the D’Agostino Supermarket on 36th and Third but not anymore. He blamed the Freegans for messing up that sweet spot.

I knew a little bit about the Freegans. They are also “pickers.” However, for them it’s more a movement than a necessity. This man was not only not a Freegan, he blamed them for messing up the deal at a few places because of all of the attention he said they attracted when they showed up to rummage for food, take videos of their activities and then post their videos online. Some markets he frequented had even begun destroying the food rather than putting it out for people to pick through, he reported in a “can you believe it” tone.

What he was, was a struggling city dweller, a crafty and very health-conscious person “living off the land” in the only way one can in this city. Unless you have a little backyard vegetable garden to farm – or the money to actually buy your groceries!

I bid him good night and went into the store. When I came out, he was gone and I heard a garbage truck rumbling and screeching up the street toward the market. I passed a trash barrel full of Artesian Flat Breads. I picked one up. It was soft and fresh. I looked at the ingredients and there were no artificial preservatives. It was vacuum-packed and sealed. I almost took the one I was examining but at the last second tossed it back into the can.

There is one thing that happened between us that I deeply regret. From his stash, my new acquaintance had offered me a mini sweet potato pie. I can still see how his face changed at my knee jerk refusal to accept his sincere goodwill offering. Instantly, I sensed his disappointment from my rejection – a dessert no less. The gift came along with cheerful words. Holding the pie out to me, he said, “Look at this! Since it’s Thanksgiving time, there are always lots of extra pies out here.”

I wished that I could have taken that moment back and graciously accepted his generosity, but I had never before been offered food taken out of a trashcan and I hesitated too long.

Now the image of that little pie that I should have accepted, thanked him for and taken with me, even if I just tossed it into the next trashcan I came to, haunts me. It would have been the right thing to do. Furthermore, I truly believe that it would have been perfectly fine to eat. Just an hour or two before, I might have taken it off the shelf and paid good money for it.

This encounter was thought-provoking in many ways and I’ve been thinking about it for a while. To be honest, there was something I admired about the man. He looked a lot happier than many of the people shopping inside the store. I think it went beyond the fact that he didn’t have to pony up at the cash register. He was making the best of what life had thrown at him, and doing it on his terms.

I think I’ll seek him out again, and if he offers me a gift, I will take it.

Not necessarily to eat.

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories, Writing about New York

A Voice in the City

A Voice in the City

 

I’m hearing voices again. This time it’s in the all-night supermarket at one thirty in the morning.

 

The city had been experiencing a massive July heat wave. Beginning that Thursday afternoon Manhattan began to empty out, like a colossal amusement park roller coaster ride coming to a halt after the final hair-raising plunge. Riders just get off and go elsewhere, leaving empty seats behind.

I’m not leaving for the weekend, so I just get off the ride, buy another ticket, then get back on until something else happens. Or maybe nothing at all, which is fine with me. So here I am, walking around this shiny-floored, fluorescent lit, overstocked food warehouse, carrying a blue plastic hand basket, tossing in sustenance items for my bare essentials studio apartment existence. At the same time, I’m wondering who on earth is going to buy all the rest of the stuff in this place. I can hardly fathom that, so I kick that thought out of my head. It’s none of my business who buys it all since I don’t have to worry about selling it all. As soon as I leave the store I’ll just think about something else anyway.

 

I do believe that just then I am the solitary night owlish shopper lurking in this cavernous subterranean market at this late hour. This sensation of aloneness is weird enough – and now things are getting even weirder.

 

The static-blurred, half-tuned late night soft rock radio station breaks the silence of the vast aisles. In the back of my mind, the music is mildly annoying, but not to the point of being irritating. I shop on.

 

As I browse the coffee aisle, balancing my half full basket, the scratchy music suddenly stops. A few moments of complete silence, and now a melodic and soothing woman’s voice, which echoes throughout the store. I surmise that the voice is that of the radio station’s graveyard shift D.J, alone like me but behind a door somewhere in the city, down some lonesome office building’s hallway, broadcasting airwaves out into the night.

 

Normally, I expect to hear a man’s voice on nighttime radio, so that catches my attention first and momentarily takes me away from considering the bounty of coffee brands before me. The Voice comes through loud and clear and, oddly enough, static-free.

 

The Voice:“Remember – there are so many people out there in the city who need help – so much suffering. The next time you pass a person who seems to be struggling in life, don’t just pass them by. Stop and ask them, ‘Is there something I can do for you? Can I help? Let me help you relieve some of your burden. You don’t have to struggle in silence – share some of your heavy load with me.’”

 

I look around, unsure if that clear-as-a-bell rhythmic voice is, in fact, coming from the radio, or what. After all, aren’t I the store’s lone shopper? So who could be talking to me? Is the night manager or cashier some type of spiritual preacher, using the supermarket’s public address system to send out a message in a store they think is completely void of shoppers, just to pass the time, rehearse a sermon, or whatever? In any event, I feel as if The Voice is speaking directly to me, and it’s spooky.

 

“When we help others, asking nothing in return, the effect of our actions will radiate out in ways that we cannot even imagine, and touch so many other lives. Often our compassion for others will come back to us in our own lives, mystically and beautifully. We are not alone. We are all connected. So people, listeners, fellow New Yorkers, we are so fortunate to live in this great city that affords us limitless opportunities to reach out and help our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters. Good night for now…”

 

Her clear hypnotic voice trails off to dead silence as soft rock music fades back in, with static once again.

 

I find myself stuck in my tracks, staring at the coffee selection for who knows how long. I come to, wondering what has just occurred. It’s like trying to recall a dream within a dream upon awakening.

 

I am in Manhattan – it is late and I am shopping.

 

I continue to fill my basket, proceed to the checkout, pay, exit and carry my bags back across the street. I take the elevator up eleven floors and go to bed. Sleep comes quickly.

 

The next day the unrelenting heat persists. On my way out in the early afternoon, Henry, the doorman, suggests that I prepare myself for the scorcher that waits beyond the thick glass front doors and the pleasantly air-conditioned lobby. He is not kidding! I get blasted, as if I’m standing behind jet engines on a concrete tarmac at LaGuardia Airport. However, it’s my usual time to take a break, get some extra strong coffee, and take a stroll to relieve a writer’s double vision and help shake the cobwebs out of my head at the same time. I walk east from Lexington toward Third to pick up my Columbian Java on the corner of East 32nd and Second, a walk I’m very familiar with and can do on autopilot.

 

I write stories about Manhattan and what goes on here. Not only is the island smack in the middle of a confluence of great rivers, rushing ocean tides, glacier gouged sounds and bays, but it’s equally a place where humanity in all forms, shapes, colors and sizes collide within a grid of avenues and streets – especially at the intersections where they all merge, like the one I am approaching on the corner of Third and East 32nd.

 

The exodus of the city continues in full force. Third Avenue is a parking lot with gridlock, honking horns, angry faces behind windshields, sweaty walkers and traffic cops. The latter seems to have all but given up and are just standing around, helpless to even urge the congregation of city buses, yellow cabs, delivery trucks and passenger cars to move mere inches ahead.

 

At this moment I feel most fortunate to be a walker. When I see cars now I don’t perceive luxury, comfort or prestige; I envision problems, seventy-dollar tank ups, insurance bills, traffic tickets, danger and worry. I like to walk. Sneakers don’t need 5,000-mile check-ups and oil changes, E-Z passes, yearly registrations or inspections. When they get worn out from overuse, I just get a new pair and leave the old ones behind at the sneaker store.

 

I snake my way through the insanity, thinking only of coffee. After ordering the usual rich bold roast and kibitzing with the servers, an activity which has become expected and is always enjoyable, I turn back toward Lexington, deciding that it’s just too darn humid and brick-oven furnace-like to hang around and drink hot coffee, even while on a bench or leaning against a wall someplace, people watching. I’ve never been a fan of iced coffee – it does nothing for me. The pull-back effect of my little air-conditioned studio apartment is too much to resist on this day. On Third Avenue, nothing has changed congestion wise. It’s still massively and miserably gridlocked.

I notice that an extra long, double-length “Galaxy” articulated bus blocks the intersection, so there is no way to see the GO/DON’T GO crossing signal. It doesn’t matter anyway, since Third Avenue has now become one solid rail of interconnected vehicles, and they are all stuck, stuck, stuck. I weave my way around hoods and trunks to cross, coffee in hand, sipping away.

 

Midway across Third Avenue, containing layer upon layer of solar-absorbing asphalt, not to mention the presence of heat emitting engines, it must be at least 120 degrees. The heat and humidity make it feel as if my lungs are trying to suck breathable air out of the exhaust pipe of a city bus.

That’s when I hear the odd noises, over and over.

 

Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr

Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr

 

I wonder where that noise coming from.

 

As I look around the jumbled vehicles, my ears zero in on one blue work van emitting the sounds of a stalled engine that is desperately trying to start up but failing, time and again and getting weaker with each turn of the ignition key.

 

The hoped-for cha ching of a successful start is not happening. The battery is slowly failing. A few more unsuccessful tries and it’ll be completely dead.

 

This repeating motor turning over noise is an unnervingly familiar sound to me, left over from my younger penniless days when I could only afford to drive old heaps that were on their last legs before the car crusher ate them up and they would’ve sold for nickels per pound as scrap carted off by the junk man. I can also strongly identify with the feelings of panic and frustration the driver must be experiencing.

What a mess – what a furnace – what chaos. I want to be back in my air-conditioned writer’s nook where I can enjoy my Columbian brew. With that single purpose in mind, I creep past the world of cars, traffic, worker bees and would-be city escapees.

 

That’s when I hear The Voice again. It sounds vaguely familiar but it is not yet in the forefront of my consciousness. The Voice is dim, and more like an emanation from an old forgotten dream or déjà vu, or like a flashback to the distant past suddenly awakening cerebrally recorded sights, smells and sounds, desperately trying to make connections to the present moment.

 

The Voice clearly says, “The next time you pass a person who seems to be struggling in life don’t just pass them by. Stop and ask them, is there something I can do for you. Can I help? Let me help you relieve some of your burden…”

 

I reach the sidewalk on the opposite side of Third, merely a few tiptoes from the relief beckoning me back to my cool and safe nook. But, hypnotically, I turn in my tracks with that strange DJ’s voice, or what I believe might be a DJ’s voice, whispering in my brain, and walk directly over to the van, where the frantically sweating driver was still struggling in vain to get his vehicle’s tired engine to kick over.

 

My approach, coming to him right in the middle of the road, startles him out of his trauma. “Hey, man – what’s going on?” I ask. “Do you need some help?”

 

He desperately responds, “Oh yeah. Thanks – it won’t start. I’m screwed here. I’m surrounded, stuck – this thing won’t start – always on a Friday…” His voice trails off in disgust and utter frustration.

 

“Okay, first, stop trying to start it,” I suggest. “You’re killing the battery. Let it sit for a while and let it cool off. It might be flooded. I’ll go back there and direct traffic around you so you don’t get slammed from behind, and stop these jerks from honking at you too, okay?”

 

“Oh, man, yes, thanks, that would be great.”

 

Now that he has me with him, I can sense some of his burden lifting as his sweat-soaked brow unfurls a little. For my part, I feel oddly peaceful to take on some of his worry, and my own cares seem to shrink in my head. I am living in the moment.

 

The Voice:

“Often our compassion for others will come back to us in our own lives mystically and beautifully…”

 

After waving away the traffic behind him, I walk back. “Try it now. If it still doesn’t start, when this bus on your right moves we’ll push it to the curb and at least you’ll be out of the middle of the avenue and danger. Then you can call for help, sound like a plan?”

 

“Okay, great plan. Thanks a lot.”

 

He tries again to crank it to turn over.

Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr

Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr

 

It’s clear that nothing has changed, so I tap him on the shoulder. “Okay, stop. Forget it. Let’s push.” I head for the rear. He’ll steer and shove from the driver’s door and brake at the same time.

 

As I travel to the back, a large black diesel smoke-emitting 18-wheeler creeps alongside this much smaller blue van in the lumbering stream of traffic. At first there appears to be ample room for me to safely pass between the two trucks with room to spare. Seeing at least an easy two-body width’s passage, I march into the passageway without concern to get myself into pushing position. Meantime, the bus on the opposite side finally begins to move, opening up the necessary curbside space to complete our operation. It is time to push hard and fast before the crucial gap closes.

 

I’m committed now. As I walk back, the 18-wheeler suddenly veers to the right, shifting dangerously close to the stalled van. This ever-so-slight rotation of tire and tonnage instantly narrows the gap I need in order to pass safely to less than a single shoulder’s width of my body.

 

The voice:

You are about to get crushed between very heavy metal. Act fast – lightning speed fast, or say goodbye.

 

In a flash of mind over matter, I twist my body sideways, cutting my width by less than half. Miraculously, the back end of the huge 18-wheeler slips past me, just barely brushing my shirt and covering it with soot. I feel the slightest pressure of its traveling mass against my upper torso. My heart beats like a drum. A close call, to say the least.

 

It is the luck of all times but there was no time to dwell on my narrow escape and The Voice that made it possible.

PUSH! As the 18-wheeler passes ahead, the stalled van’s driver forces his steering wheel hard to the right. I plow my shoulder into the rear doors, releasing a Herculean grunt as my sneakers dig in. I hold fast in the softening 120-degree asphalt. With all our might we both PUSH and PUSH!

 

It is a beautiful thing. The van coasts, engineless, into a rare vacant curbside parking spot. It goes just as planned, with impeccable timing and precision.

 

Voice: Good Job!

 

The driver reaches into his van and grabs his cell phone, makes a call, and then comes over to me. I am in the shade, leaning against a mailbox for support.

 

“Will you be okay now? I guess your company will get help for you?” I ask.

 

“Yes, they said they’ll send a tow truck. Listen man, I can’t thank you enough for helping me.”

 

“Not a problem. I was glad to.”

 

We shake hands. I walk away feeling fortunate that I have less than half of a city block’s distance to cross to arrive at my cool and comfortable sanctuary, and do not have to fight my way out of the city for hours like all those stuck in the nasty traffic jam. I feel grateful and at the same time troubled for all those working folk desperate to get home or get to some cooler weekend destination. With all its wonder and intrigue, New York is still a rough city. Its romantic skyline can be painfully deceptive at times like these.

After a short while, cooling off and reflecting on what had just happened, it occurs to me how close I had come to being crushed between a truck and a bus, and having the life snuffed right out of my body.

 

I hear The Voice again, as if it has read my thoughts.

 

How fragile life is.

 

Without thinking, I answer out loud, in my small, safe apartment.

 

“Thank you for giving me the compassion and courage to help the man in the stalled van and for warning me of that danger I was in, so I have a tomorrow to be available for more opportunities to care, and try to reach out and help our fellow citizens – brothers and sisters.”

 

Just then I realize that I left my cardboard coffee container, still full, somewhere on the street. No problem! I opened the new grinds I had the night before and make a fresh cup of Colombian brew. It sure feels good to be alive right now.

I know what you must be thinking, but no, The Voice was not in my head.

 

 

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Park Avenue to Park Bench, Short Stories

A Super Guy in a Supermarket

The manager of the Gristedes supermarket told me that he loved his work. This was after I told him that he did a fantastic job setting up the Thanksgiving food and decorative display at the bottom of the escalator. He grew up in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. It was a tough neighborhood but his parents were strict and made all the kids get jobs. They taught them that the only way to get ahead was through hard work. Now his own kids are grown, and he is proud of them: a pharmacist, a chef and a nurse.

 

For 40 years, he and his wife have worked for Gristedes. He remembers when the owner, now a billionaire, had just four stores and used to pitch in and help him bag groceries when it got extra-busy.

 

Once, when he was a kid and he needed new sneakers, his parents could only afford to get him the ones with plastic soles that they sold at Pathmark for $2.99. He wanted the name-brand ones for $7.99 with genuine rubber soles, which let you jump higher and run faster, but they simply couldn’t afford it. He took all the back alleys to and from school so none of the other boys in Hunts Point would see him wearing those supermarket sneakers.

 

The next day he got a job bagging groceries to be able to buy himself the $7.99 sneakers; once he had them, he left the $2.99 plastic sole ones in his gym locker and never put them on his feet again. He never left the Gristedes Market chain for 40 more years.

“I put in a minimum 60 to 70 hours per week, but I never work the weekends,” he proudly told me. As a result of his hard work, he was able to buy a weekend getaway place in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He bought it when his kids were still young, to escape the city, and that’s where he was headed Friday night.

 

He was looking forward to his 16-year-old grandson visiting him up there on Saturday. He loves that kid and, if needed, he will take out a second mortgage on his house, as he did once before, if that’s what it takes to make sure the boy also goes to college just like his children did.

 

In three years, he and his wife will retire from Gristedes. Over the years, he had many other job offers but turned them all down because his boss is a fair man.

 

He’s thinking Clearwater and she’s got her heart set on Orlando. They’ll work it out.

 

As the escalator took me up, I looked back and there he was, busily stringing orange garlands around the holiday food display. As I reached the top, I heard a young cashier say, “Hey boss, can you please come over here, I need some help?” Off he went in her direction.

 

This whole experience reminds me how all of us, busily running around from this to that, usually miss the human beings behind everything. In any case, I’m glad I got to show him some appreciation. It made us both feel good. We are all on our separate journeys that sometimes intercept – often in the most unexpected places!

 

 

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