One of my Antioch College coop jobs was at Popular Science Magazine in New York City in 1958. I was part of the library staff, responsible for responding to reader’s mailed-in questions. Most of these had to do with past articles that readers vaguely remembered but no longer had available, and my job involved locating the article in question, clipping it out of an old copy of the magazine, and mailing it off with a brief form letter. The task held only mild interest at best, and my after hours life in the city was the more meaningful part of my stay.
I fancied myself an aspiring writer at the time, and one of my occasional pursuits was to go down to the Bowery on a Saturday and mingle in the bars with the alcoholic patrons. I recall one Saturday in particular. I took the subway down to Greenwich Village around noon, then walked over to the Bowery, and had some beer in a couple of bars. In one of them I met a tall guy in a cowboy hat and boots named Charlie, and we got to talking. I told him I wanted to be a writer and had come there to hear some life stories. He was happy to oblige. Despite his apparel, Charlie wasn’t really a cowboy. He’d grown up in Iowa, was in his forties and had been living on the Bowery for a decade or more, subsisting on temp construction work when he needed some money. He showed me a bar game which involved moving three coins about, and we played to see who would pay for the beer. I lost every time, but it was worth it. Charlie told me a lot of colorful stories. After an hour or so, the bartender suddenly hollered at a big Puerto Rican guy sitting on the stool next to Charlie’s. The guy had taken and pocketed the dollar bill that Charlie had had sitting in front of him on the bar. Charlie confronted him, and the Puerto Rican guy grabbed Charlie’s beer bottle by the neck and came at him with it. At that point, a little gray-haired man leaped on the Puerto Rican guy’s back, pinning his arm back. The Puerto Rican guy swung around, hurling the much smaller man onto a table, and took off running out the door. Charlie shouted curses, but he didn’t go after him. I chatted for a few minutes more, then said I needed to get going.
I walked a few blocks down Bowery Ave. and came to the Salvation Army Mission. A sign board outside announced that the evening services, followed by dinner, would be starting shortly. I’d always been curious about the mission. I went in, and there were already a couple hundred men seated in rows facing the front stage. I took a seat in the back row. A heavyset Salvation Army woman with glasses and gray hair was the speaker, and she was terrific. She mixed together a bunch of religion, stories about life on the Bowery, and practical advice about how her clientele could turn their lives around. She knew her stuff, and she got a lot of laughs out of her audience. After half an hour she concluded her talk, said dinner would be served in the next room, and added that anybody who wasn’t there for dinner ought to leave at that point. I wasn’t interested in staying for dinner, so I stood up. It turned out that I was the only person who wasn’t there for the food, and all the eyes in the room turned to me. I was still sort of woozy with beer, and I couldn’t quite make out which way to go. The speaker started giving me directions over the microphone, and I wobbled this way and that, making my way to the very front of the room.
Finally I was out of there, and I hurried down a dark hallway toward the door at the end. Out of nowhere a hand grabbed me tightly around my upper arm. My heart skipped a beat. The hand pulled me into a side room. Once inside I found that my captor was a wiry, spectacled woman with straight black hair who introduced herself as Captain Olive something-or-other. She said she wanted to talk to me. I was totally taken aback, but couldn’t think of anything to do except to answer her questions. She asked why I was on the Bowery and how I’d gotten there. I told her a story that was pretty much constructed from the questions she asked. She asked if a girl were involved, and I said yes. Together we figured out that I’d broken up with the girl I loved and had left my family, who I didn’t get along with, and made my way to New York, ending upon penniless on the Bowery. We talked about my sorry life for ten minutes. Finally I promised her that I would would stop coming to the Bowery and instead start going to a Salvation Army mission in upper Manhattan. When I promised that I would do that, Captain Olive let me go.
I made the mistake of telling my parents about some of this in a phone call, and they got very worried. They arranged for one of their good friends who was traveling to New York for business purposes to meet with me for lunch and explain to me the dangers of the city’s underworld. We did meet, and he was relieved to find that I hadn’t lost my mind. Despite my promise, I never did go to the uptown Salvation Army mission.
Linda KC: that was a wonderful story