Featured Story

Gimme Shelter: Street Smart

My friend Stan lives in the city and works for an advertising agency. One recent morning, due to give a presentation to a client later in the day, Stan got dressed up in a suit and took the subway to work.

In the packed rush hour train, he found a space to stand and hold one of the poles in the center of the car, squashed against people on all sides.

On his right was a young fellow who was obviously down on his luck. He was haphazardly shaved, his hair hadn’t been washed in a while and his clothes were slightly pungent. When the doors opened at a stop, the young fellow — along with several others — bumped against Stan to get out.

Stan immediately felt for his cellphone in his inside jacket pocket. Gone.

He yelled at the man leaving the car, who looked back quickly. “Stop!” Stan yelled, pushing people out of his way, just making it on to the platform before the doors closed. “Stop!” he yelled again as the man took off, looking back quickly, terrified, running down the platform toward the stairs leading to the street as Stan gave chase.

A veteran, who played high school football, Stan caught him just as he reached the stairs, and tackled him. But the young fellow was strong. His eyes alight with adrenaline, he kicked Stan in the head as they both were scrambling on the platform floor, and jumped up and scooted up the steps, vanishing in the crowds.

People came and helped Stan to his feet. He was “O.K.” he kept saying, even though he had the worst headache of his life and for a minute or two was seeing double.

When he got to work, the receptionist said, “Oh, my God, Stan!” seeing the large red welt on his forehead. He told her he didn’t want to talk about it. She said, “You sure? O.K. By the way, your wife called and said you left your cellphone at home.”

He said to me later: “I keep imagining the young guy telling a friend later: ‘Subway is getting awful. Some insane Suit chased me and then jumped me for nothing.’”

Stan’s not alone in making judgments based on poverty and body odor. At one point when I was a young man, at loose ends (I’ve never really tied them all up) and out of work, I scored a job running the elevator at a private grammar school in Manhattan.

I loved the kids and the people I worked with, it was a union job and gave me time to keep writing a novel that Thomas Wolfe had written 40 years before.

On occasion, the school would hold dinners to celebrate people of distinction and/or big donors. The dinners were held on the building’s rooftop garden and were elegant affairs, with men and women in formal wear. The head doorman Walter and I, dressed in cleaned and pressed livery, greeted guests — Walter checked their invitations — and I carried them upstairs.

A nice night, all around, with overtime, and when everyone was at dinner, the chance to listen to Walter, the shop steward and sage, tell me stories.

“There was this one time,” Walter started, as we sat in the lobby. It was a dinner like tonight, he said, when he and Gus, the elevator man before me, were just sitting down with everyone upstairs, when a strange character appeared in the lobby.

Walter got to his feet saying, “Can I help you, sir?” The guy had a weird hat, almost like a miniature sombrero, and he wasn’t in formal wear but in a suit that looked like he’d slept in it and a tie half undone. “I’ve come for the —” he started, but was interrupted by Walter demanding to see his invitation.

“Well,” he smiled, “I don’t think —”

“No invitation, no dinner,” Walter said. “I’ve got to ask you to leave.”

“But you see —”

“I see nothin’, come on,” and Walter grabbed the man by the elbow, moving him toward the door as Gus quickly got up and went over to add some extra muscle to throw the guy out.

“But, but —” the guy was stammering.

The scene was interrupted by the principal of the school appearing in the lobby saying, “Dr. Oppenheimer! So good to see you. What a privilege to honor you tonight.”

Gus took the guest of honor and the principal up in the elevator, leaving Walter alone, thinking: Does he fire us tonight or tomorrow? And: That bum made the atom bomb?

Filing out later that night with a crowd around him, Oppenheimer took Walter aside for a moment, and asked if he needed an invitation to get out of the building, and both men laughed.

That’s my Oppenheimer story, which I’ll tell at the Thanksgiving table.

Morals to the stories? As Louis Armstrong said when asked to define jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”