Our previous episode of this memoir found our hero Arnold Schnabel having a chat over coffee with “Steve”, a fellow whom Arnold had thought was possibly the physical incarnation of Jesus Christ. But then Arnold was all too aware of the doubtful reliability of his own senses.
It is a rainy stormy day in Cape May, New Jersey, in August 1963.
Our setting: the Cape Coffee Shoppe.
The song on the jukebox: “You Don’t Own Me”, by Lesley Gore...
“Oh my God, I love this song,” said Steve.
He began to sing along to the jukebox:
You don't own me
I'm not just one of your many toys
You don't own me
Don't say I can't go with other boys
Steve seemed oblivious to the mess he had just made all over the counter, so I grabbed a bunch of paper napkins out of the metal dispenser and wiped it up.
Steve just kept singing. At least he was on pitch.
And don't tell me what to do
And don't tell me what to say
And please, when I go out with you,
Don't put me on display 'cause
He turned and pointed a finger at me:
You don't own me
Don't try to change me in any way
You don't own me
Don't tie me down 'cause I'd never stay
The people on either side of us had stopped talking and were now staring at Steve, but he didn’t care. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists and sang:
I don't tell you what to say
I don't tell you what to do
So, just let me be myself
That's all I ask of you
I'm young and I love to be young
I'm free and I love to be free
To live my life the way I want,
To say and do whatever I please
An instrumental part came on, and so he finally shut up. The people kept staring at him though. He looked at me and shrugged.
“Arthur,” he said, “I think I need a hair of the dog, and pronto. Will you join me for a cocktail at the Ugly Mug?”
“Well, Steve,” I said, “it’s a little early for me.”
“Oh, pish, come on, we’re on vacation, ness pa?”
“It’s French. At least I think it’s French. Like, N, apostrophe, E, S, T, um, dash, uh, C, E, I think.”
“Oh. N’est-ce pas?”
“That’s it; you speak French, I’m so impressed.”
“Not really,” I said. “I took a course in the army, and I was in France for about six months in the war, so I picked up a little.”
“I’ll bet you were very brave.”
“I was an engineer. I never fired a shot.”
“I’m sure you were brave. Come have a drink with me.”
“No,” I said, “I should go home and have lunch.”
“Let me buy you lunch, Arthur. You’re the only friend I’ve made in this town.”
That was sad.
“Come on,” he said. “Don’t make me drink alone. I’ll buy you a tremendous cheeseburger.”
I felt sorry for him. And also I wanted to get out of there because people were still giving him glances, waiting for him to break into song again.
Steve insisted on paying for my coffee. We got our umbrellas and walked down the block in the lashing rain to the Mug.
It was barely noon, but even so the northeaster had filled the place up with people desperate for some sort of good time on their vacations.
There was one empty booth and Steve made a beeline for it.
We sat down, we got out our cigarettes and lighted up. The young waitress came over.
“A pitcher of Schaefer, please, darling,” said Steve. “Oh, and two Manhattans, up, and arctically cold.”
“No Manhattan for me,” I said, “I’ll just have a large club soda please.”
There was a boring part here, with Steve trying to talk me into having a Manhattan with him. Finally the waitress just looked at me.
“A club soda,” I said. “No Manhattan for me.”
“Okay!” she gave a strained smile and went away.
This song about people came on, people who need people being the luckiest people in the world, and Steve started singing again.
“Steve,” I said. “Steve. Steve.”
“Steve, you have to stop singing.”
“But I love Barbra!”
“Then let her sing.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks so much for having lunch with me, Arthur.”
“My name is Arnold.”
“Oh my God I’m so sorry.”
“Arnold. Arnold Arnold Arnold. I’ll remember that now. So! Arnold, tell me the story of your life.”
“I went to work for the railroad at the age of sixteen. Except for when I was in the army I’ve been on the railroad my whole life. I never got married and I live with my mother. I’ve written a poem a week for my local paper in Philly, the Olney Times, every week since I was eighteen years old.”
The waitress came over with her tray. She laid down the pitcher of beer and two empty beer mugs, a Manhattan, and a large club soda.
“Would you like to order some food?” she asked.
There were menus on the table, but we hadn’t opened them.
“I’ll have a cheeseburger,” I said. “Medium rare, with French fries. Please.”
“Anything for you, sir?” she asked Steve.
“Oh, no, darling, I’ll drink my lunch.”
She went away again.
“Do continue,” said Steve. He picked up his Manhattan and sipped it.
“I had a mental breakdown last January, and was hospitalized for a while. Eventually I went back to work, but I wasn’t quite recovered, and so they put me on a leave of absence at half-pay. My mother decided it would be good for me to come to Cape May with her and stay at the boarding house her three sisters own.” I stopped. “That brings us up to date,” I said. “That’s the story of my life.”
Steve paused, still holding his Manhattan in mid-air. Then, no more sipping, he drank it all in two gulps.
“You don’t know how therapeutic that was,” he said.
He lifted the pitcher and filled his beer mug, then went to fill the other one. I put my hand over the mug.
“None for me, Steve.”
“Oh, all right.” He took a drink of beer. “A poem a week?”
“Yep. Every week. But don’t worry, they’re not very good.”
“I knew you were the artistic sort. I could tell. Did you ever read The Fountainhead, by what’s her name?”
“No,” I said.
“Anne something. The Fountainhead?”
“Nope, never read it.”
“Oh, you must read it. It took me more than a year, but I was riveted by that book. Riveted. What’s another good book I’ve read? How about Ship of Fools by Katharine Anne, um -- I haven’t quite finished that one. So, a mental breakdown. Very interesting. Personally I think the world is mad. I would like to read your poems. Do you want to hear my life story?”
He told me his life story.
Boy, and I thought my life was dull.
Listening to him really made me want to drink some of that beer, and so finally I broke down and poured myself a mug.
Why had I come here with him?
I kept nodding my head as he went on and on.
I had felt sorry for him.
Now I felt sorry for myself, stuck here with him.
Fortunately my cheeseburger and fries arrived, so my lunch preoccupied me for a while. They make a good burger there.
But soon enough the burger and fries were gone, but Steve was still there. He’d ordered another Manhattan, and another pitcher of beer. Of course he also tried to order me a Manhattan, but I stood firm on that score.
I wouldn’t be able to put down more than a few scraps of Steve’s life story here, even if I wanted to, because frankly I was barely listening. And also because after a while I realized I was falling into, or rising into, one of those episodes of mine, becoming detached from the world and myself. I could see Steve’s lips moving but I couldn’t make out any words at all. Oddly enough though I was hearing that song that had been playing earlier, the one about people who need people.
I hate these episodes. There’s always the fear that the episode will never end. And so the thing to do is to force it to end, by doing something, anything.
“Excuse me, Steve,” I heard myself say. “I have to go to the men’s room.”
I got up in a sort of panic and made my way to the men’s room.
There was no one in it.
I stared at my face in the mirror.
“Okay,” I said, “snap out of it. Snap out of it.” I didn’t like my face. I was tired of my face. “Snap out of it.” Ever since my breakdown my method was to say the Hail Mary over and over again, and that usually worked after a while. But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to say the Hail Mary now. And thinking about this, about not saying the Hail Mary, I felt the panic subside, and I felt myself relaxing into myself again.
I took a deep breath.
Then I really did have to pee, so I peed.
I felt better now.
I rinsed my hands and went back out.
“Are you okay?” said Steve. “You looked a little pale just then.”
“I’m fine,” I said. I sat and filled my mug. It was only my second one.
“So, I’ve been boring you,” said Steve.
“Oh, no,” I said.
I looked at him. He did somehow look like Jesus, although without the beard and long hair and robe. Could he really be Jesus? No, that was insane.
“Steve, I have to tell you something.”
“Fire away, old man.”
He was talking in a British accent now.
“The other night when we were here, I really thought you were Jesus.”
“You see, I’m not fully recovered. I’ve -- I’ve imagined that I was speaking to Jesus on several occasions.”
“Like Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette!”
“Well, she saw the Blessed Mother, not Jesus.”
“But just like her! Maybe you did see Jesus!”
“Yeah, maybe, but that one time I thought you were Jesus.”
He paused for a long moment. He was back to speaking in an American accent now.
“But could it be true?” he said.
“Could what be true?”
“I couldn’t be Jesus, could I?”
I decided right then that it was time to finish my beer and to take my leave. But as gently as possible.
(Click here for our next thrilling chapter, and kindly turn to the right hand column of this page for an up-to-date listing of links to other episodes of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven, and to many of his fine poems.)