Authors: Robert Grossbach
“Scared the hell outa you, I’ll bet,” said Joe.
“Nah, we was used to it,” said Willie. “We’d use the breast stroke, push ‘em away with our arms.” He paused, remembering,
feeling the cool water lapping against his ribs, hearing the shouts of his friends. “The real danger was the current,” he
said. “It would carry you down toward the harbor, and some days it was pretty strong. Most times, of course, we’d just go
with it, swim back to the Queens shore further down or catch the tip of Roosevelt Island. One friend of mine didn’t make it
“They found his body two days later. My friend, Frankie Calmani. He was eleven years old.”
“That was too bad, Willie.”
Willie nodded. “It was a long time ago,” he said. “A long time ago.”
They walked south and west, heading generally downtown, their path pretty much aimless, determined mainly by which traffic
lights happened to change.
“I hear they may close this place,” said Al, when they passed the Radio City Music Hall.
“Geez, I hope not,” said Joe. “I used to go here with my kids.”
“That’s the problem,” said Al. “People wanna see adult movies these days. Nobody cares about the children anymore.”
“Tell you,” said Joe, “the thing my son used to
like best was the electric hand driers in the men’s room downstairs. He wouldn’t even care about the movie. The girls would
be watchin’ the picture an’ he’d say, ‘Daddy, take me down,’ an’ we’d go to that men’s room, an’ he’d press the buttons on
every damn drier in the place. That was his big enjoyment.”
They turned down Sixth Avenue, then cut over toward Broadway.
“It’s a different era now,” said Willie, as they paused under the marquee of the Belasco Theater. “City’s dyin’. Middle class
is movin’ out, government can’t pay its bills, Bronx and Brooklyn turnin’ to bombed-out graveyards… I think the whole thing’s
gonna collapse on our heads.”
“Not my head,” said Joe. “I’ll be gone.”
They reached Broadway. “There!” Willie.
They reached Broadway. “There!” Willie pointed. “There’s what’s replaced your Radio City and your legitimate stage.”
Joe sighted along Willie’s shaky index finger. “The Adventures of Marla?” he said.
“Sex shows,” affirmed Willie.
They approached the Honeybunch Theater, darting glances at the explicit, lurid photos outside.
“Pornography,” said Willie. “It got its place—I ain’t no prude—but it makes an area cheap. Brings it down.”
“Let’s go in,” said Al.
“I’ll wait outside,” said Willie. “I’d be ashamed someone should see me coming from a place like this.”
Al laughed. “Come on, Willie, we was just teasing you. We got serious work to do.”
“Glad to hear it,” said Willie, as they moved on.
“We’ll catch this on the way back,” said Joe.
At the corner, a crowd was gathered on the sidewalk, blocking pedestrian traffic in both directions. A bearded man in a white
sheet stood on a wooden box, gesticulating wildly. The onlookers would occasionally gesture back, occasionally break into
“They will tumble at your feet!” shouted the orator. “Mark my words: The earth shall tremble at its core and the orifices
of sin and defilement will be rent asunder!” He scanned the crowd, his long hair brushing his shoulders, his eyes smoldering.
“Orifices means holes,” said Willie to Al. “Don’t orifices mean holes? I think he used the wrong word.”
“He meant edifices,” said a well-dressed man next to Willie.
“See that?” said Joe. “Whyn’t you go up an’ take over from him, Willie? You could do just as good.”
“Maybe I will,” said Willie.
“God will cast a pall over the land!” shouted the orator. “He will drive out the purveyors of filth, those who would bestialize
the human body, and pitch them into a damnation of eternal, unendurable agony! And thus will those who delight in the carnal
pay the price with their own flesh!”
Joe squinted. “On second thought,” he said, “I don’t believe I will go back to that theater.”
“Let’s get outa here,” said Willie. “This guy’s nuts.”
They resumed their walk downtown. At Forty-third Street, halfway along the block, they passed a
branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank. “For years,” said Al, “I thought I had a friend here. Then one day I went to get a loan.”
Joe peered inside. “Two guards,” he noted. “Both with guns. That would be really tough.”
“Forget it,” said Al.
They wended their way back toward Broadway, where a veritable sea of people made walking as well as driving almost impossible.
“Jesus,” said Joe, “don’t nobody work up here? I mean, we’re old men, we done our time, but what’s everyone else’s excuse?
The whole world is out on the street.”
They heard metallic, syncopated drumbeats. “Somethin’s over there causin’ the bottleneck,” said Joe. The clanky rhythms grew
more distinct as they moved on downtown.
“You know,” said Willie, “I don’t think I been in the city since I stopped driving the cab.”
“You ain’t missed much,” said Joe.
“I have,” said Willie. “The changes are slow, but they’re there. I see ‘em.”
A young woman cut ahead of them. She was earing a clinging pink cotton blouse and tight, thin white slacks.
“Look at that,” said an awed Willie. “You can see her drawers right through the pants.”
“You’re supposed to,” said Joe. “That’s how they design ‘em these days.”
“Why not just leave off the pants and walk around in the drawers?” said Willie.
Al clicked his tongue. “I’ll tell you, it’s been a long time for me too. I forgot how many beautiful girls are around here.”
“New York’s got the best lookin’ women in the world,” said Willie.
“Lotta good it’s gonna do us now,” said Joe.
“Yeah,” said Al, knowing that this time the teasing was simply the truth. “I suppose. Still, I kinda like to look at ‘em.”
“Can’t arrest you for lookin’,” said Joe.
They saw now the source of the hypnotic rhythms: four black treet musicians, a steel band. Silently, Al directed Joe’s attention
to Willie, who was smiling vacantly and gently bouncing his head in time to the music. A moment later, Al himself was caught-up
in the cadences. Gradually, his walk shifted to a kind of home-made-mambo-Jackie Gleason shuffle. Joe began to clap, and several
people turned to watch. They were directly in front of the musicians now, and Al began to dance around a slightly embarrassed,
but smiling Willie.
“Fred Astaire!” shouted Joe. “Fred and Ginger, right here!”
The crowd joined Joe in his clapping, and this seemed to encourage Al. He two-stepped around Willie with increasing speed.
His elbows and forearms flew in all directions. The band, grinning, began to alter their rhythms to conform with his. One
of the musicians left his drum and joined Al in his orbit around Willie. After a moment, the three of them joined hands and
did a rough approximation of a Zorba-the-Greek dance, with Joe providing the handkerchief. The crowd was now applauding steadily.
Finally, with a grand flourish and drumsticks tossed in the air, the musicians brought their song to a pounding climax. Al
raised both hands in the air,
then bowed deeply to the appreciative gathering. He, Joe, and Willie all slapped hands with the musicians. Dollar bills littered
the street in front of the drums. Amid the crowd, a uniformed policeman applauded along with everyone else.
“Man,” said the drummer who’d left his instrument to dance, “you gahs terrific. You the best.”
“We enjoyed it,” said Willie.
“It was great,” puffed Al, still short of breath. Droplets of perspiration beaded his forehead. His cheeks and neck were flushed.
“We best team up,” said -the drummer. “We get next to a heap o’ bread.”
“I was thinkin’ the same thing,” said Al, smiling. “We’ll have our agent give your agent a call.”
Joe and Willie and Al began to walk again. The crowd had largely dispersed, but several people waved to Al and patted him
on the back.
“I was gettin’ worried there for a second,” said Joe, as they reached Fortieth Street.
“Why’s that?” said Willie.
“Well, in the first place, I figured maybe you and Al would take that drummer serious. I mean, with you admirin’ them kids
in the subway, an’ then I could see you were eatin’ up the attention of that crowd… I figured, these guys ain’t cut out for
stealin’, they oughta be in show biz.”
“And what’s the second place?” said Al.
“What second place?”
“You said, ‘in the first place’ about why you was worried. That means there’s another reason.”
“It does?’ said Joe blankly. “I dunno. I forgot.”
Al bared his teeth. “Jesus!” he said forcefully.
“I hate that! My mother, God rest her soul, used to do that all the time. Sometimes I’d wait the whole day to see what she
had in mind, and she’d never deliver. Tor one thing,’ she used to say, and then there’d never be
thing. It drove me nuts.”
“We can see,” said Willie.
“Wait a minute, I just remembered the second place,” said Joe.
Al shut his eyes and muttered a mock prayer. “Thank you, O Lord, for grantin’ this unworthy soul his poor wish.”
“My second worry was that you or Willie or both would suddenly keel over an’ drop dead from heart attacks. Then who’d I have
to help me pull off the job?”
“Listen,” said Willie, “when I was twenty-nine, I went to some doctor on the Grand Concourse. He examines me for a half hour
with a stethoscope cold as an ice cube. ‘You got six months to live,’ he tells me. ‘Maybe a year if you’re lucky.’ I say,
‘What’s the trouble?’ He says, ‘Rheumatic heart, young man. When’d you have the fever?’ I say, ‘What fever? I hardly been
sick more’n three days in my life.’ He says, ‘You got two valves stuck nearly shut. You musta had it.’ I tell him I feel fine
except for I got this cough. An’ I never had no rheumatic fever. He says, ‘Yeah, yeah, you had it. A lotta people from the
other side had it, they don’t even know it.’ I explain I was born in the Bronx. He tells me, ‘Don’t matter anyhow, you’ll
be dead inside a year.’” Willie smiled. “I guess he was a little off.”
Al nodded. “Just goes to prove my point.”
“What point?” said Joe. “You didn’t make any point.”
“You ain’t said anythin’ sensible in a week, if you must know,” said Joe.
“Oh, no?” said Al. “Well, here’s somethin’: To hell with you!”
“Boys, boys!” said Willie. “Fellas, gentlemen, guys… relax. Easy. Slow down, and you’ll live longer.”
“Which brings me back to my original thought,” said Al.
“You didn’t have no original thought,” persisted Joe. “You never have original thoughts.”
Al ignored him. “I say: when your time is up, it’s up, regardless of anything.”
“What the hell’s original about that?” muttered Joe. They walked down a street lined with office buildings. “That’s the oldest
remark in the world, and it’s still weak.”
“You can live for fifty years,” continued Al, “with a heart that flutters like a flag in the breeze, or you can get hit by
a car crossin’ the street. It’s outa our hands.”
They were almost back to Sixth Avenue. “You believe in God, Al?” asked Willie suddenly.
“What kinda question is that?” said Al.
“That’s the kinda thing I’d expect from my nephew.”
“But do you?”
Al seemed acutely uncomfortable. “A little.”
“What do you mean, a little? Either you do, or you don’t.”
“I’m afraid not to,” said Al. “I mean, I pray to Him an’ all, even if I ain’t sure He’s there, because
if I’m wrong”—his eyes twinkled—“there’ll be hell to pay.”
Joe, whose attention had drifted, pointed at one of the office buildings. “Years ago,” he said, “I was walkin’, I seen Lloyd
Bridges come right outa that buildin’. Remember him, the guy on
Big as life, I spotted him right here.”
“My bet is I’ll die in my sleep,” said Al. “I have that feelin’. If I ain’t had no heart attack up to now, I ain’t gonna get
one. If there is a God, He had-plenty of chances to kill me when I was younger, I raised a lotta hell an’ drank a lotta booze.
So, if He didn’t get me then, I figure He’ll go easy on me now.”
Willie nodded. “How ‘bout you, Joe?” he asked. “You a believer?”
“Sure,” said Joe easily. “I believe in Lloyd Bridges.”