One cold Saturday afternoon in 1962 or 1963, I was on a
weekend pass to New York City from my ship, the U.S.S. Lawrence,
DDG 4, based in Norfolk, Virginia. Imagine the way I looked, a boy from Tullos walking the sidewalks of New York City and
gawking up at buildings seemingly reaching to the sky. But
after a couple of hours spent walking and gawking, I started
looking for a restaurant. |
A few yards ahead of me, I spied an awning poking out over the sidewalk. It looked made of purple velvet. Along the side facing me, fancy gold letters spelled something in French. Through the squeaky-clean plate-glass window beside the ornate door, I could see a menu resting on what looked like a solid gold artist's easel. Ah, I said to myself, a restaurant. But it looks expensive. Hell, I've got two months' pay burning holes in my pockets.
I stepped toward the door and, in my peripheral vision, saw a ragged man sitting on the sidewalk and leaning against the side of the building. He got to his feet and walked toward me. I stopped when he stepped in front of me, between me and the awning. "Hey, swabby," he said, "you got a dollar so I can buy something to eat?"
His clothing was black with filth. A rope ran through the belt-loops of his pants and tied at his waist. His toes poked out of holes cut in shoes too small for his feet. And he reeked of alcohol, horribly so. I knew if I gave him a dollar he would not spend it on food. Strangely, as I remember it now, I did not hesitate. I pointed to the nearby restaurant and said, "Follow me and I'll buy you a meal."
I started walking and he followed, protesting loudly that if he had a dollar he could buy his own food. When we entered the restaurant, a waiter dressed in a tuxedo met us just inside the door. He informed me in no uncertain terms that I could stay but "that bum" had to go.
So, while all the well-dressed customers inside the restaurant stopped eating and watched us, a lively three-way conversation developed between a man in Navy blue, a man in rags, and a man in a tuxedo. I argued that the bum needed to eat; the bum continued loudly informing me of what he could do if he had a dollar; the waiter started insisting that, now, me and the bum had to go. He finally pointed to the door and yelled, "Out!"
For some reason I stood my ground. Youthful foolishness, I guess. Then, luckily, the head-waiter appeared and defused the situation. "Please!" he said. "Follow me!"
He led me and the bum to a table in the rear of the restaurant and seated us. Up stepped the original waiter. If looks could kill, I would not be here today. He placed two tinkling crystal glasses of ice-water on the table and then threw two menus on the table and walked away.
I picked up my menu. It was in French. I looked at the bum and asked, "What do you want to eat?"
"I don't want to eat a !@#$%^& thing! I want a !@#$%^& dollar!"
"I ain't giving you a dollar. What do you want to eat?"
Up stepped the waiter again, an order-pad in one hand, a pen in his other hand, and a sneer on his face. "Welllll?" he said to me.
"You got any hamburgers?" I said to him.
His sneer got wider, and he looked down at the bum. I asked the bum, "What do you want to eat?"
The bum changed his mind: "I want bacon and eggs."
The waiter, in a voice as icy as the water in my crystal glass, asked me, "Will that be all?"
The bum added, "With a big glass of orange juice."
So, we ate, surrounded by opulence and stares colder than the street outside. And while we ate, my ragged and stinking guest continued complaining about the dollar. When we finished, I left no tip. Back out on the street, I handed the ragged man a dollar. Without a word of thanks, he grabbed it and disappeared down the sidewalk.
The next day, after a sailor's night of entertainment in New York City, I woke with a hangover and with twenty-five cents in my pocket. The only thing I remember about that night--that I care to mention--is getting thrown out of the Peppermint Lounge. That's where Joey Dee and the Starlighters were appearing and singing their brand-new hit: "The Peppermint Twist."
I walked toward the bus station, a quarter in one pocket and, thankfully, half of a round-trip bus ticket in the other pocket. My stomach started growling. I passed a hole-in-the-wall hamburger stand. They sold hot-dogs for twenty-five cents and had a table where you could apply your own condiments. So I placed a tiny hot-dog in the center of a paper plate, covered the dog and the plate with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions, and sat down and ate while the owner cast icy stares in my direction.
The wait in the bus station seemed eternal. Snow started falling as the bus left the station--grimy, slushy snow like liquid gray sleet. The ride back to Norfolk was long, hungry, and cold. The old "Leaping Lawrence," as we called our ship, never looked so good.
I soon crawled into my bunk, my body warm and my belly full. I lay there in the darkness for a long time, thinking not about the pleasures of the night before but about the bum.