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 meHe 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.
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 just kept singing. At least he was on pitch.
And don't tell me what to doHe turned and pointed a finger at me:
And don't tell me what to say
And please, when I go out with you,
Don't put me on display, 'cause
You don't own meThe 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:
Don't try to change me in any way
You don't own me
Don't tie me down 'cause I'd never stay
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.”
“I don’t really speak it,” I said. “I took a course in the army, and I was in France for a while in the war, so –”
“I’ll bet you were very brave.”
“I was an engineer. I never fired a shot.”
“I’m sure you were frightfully 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 almost 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. A 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, wanting to get on with her life.
“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 paused for just a moment and then went ahead and started to give him the highlights.
After a few sentences I could tell he was getting bored, and so was I.
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 with your life story, Arthur, I mean Arnold,” said Steve, probably just to be polite. He picked up his Manhattan and sipped it.
I decided to get right to the dramatic stuff, and so I briefly told him about my breakdown and hospitalization, my failed attempt to go back to work, the railroad putting me on an indefinite paid leave of absence, my mother taking me to Cape May to stay at her sisters’ boarding house.
“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, obviously referring to his Manhattan and not to hearing the story of my life.
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. “Wait, did you say you write and publish a poem every 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 to finish it, 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 Steve?
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 occupied 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. He also tried to order me a Manhattan, but I stood firm on that score.
Steve went on with his life story, but I wouldn’t be able to put down more than a few scraps of it here even if I wanted to, because, just as he had no doubt barely been listening to my own life story, I was probably even more barely listening to his, and 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, as if from another room, 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 try to force it to end, by doing something, anything.
“Excuse me, Steve,” I heard myself say. “I have to go to the – you know –”
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.”
In desperation I started to say the first few phrases of the Hail Mary over and over again, a ploy that has worked for me before in these situations. But then I began to think about how absurd it was to pray to the Blessed Mother, because why should she help me, even if she did exist? And thinking about this, about the absurdity of saying the Hail Mary, and not even the whole Hail Mary but just the beginning part over and over again, I felt the panic subside, and I felt myself relaxing into myself again.
I took a deep breath.
Maybe the Blessed Mother really had come to my rescue. I had no way of knowing.
Then I actually 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 I don’t know what 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 lied.
I looked at him. He did look somewhat like Jesus, although without the beard and long hair and robe. Could he actually be Jesus? No, that was insane.
(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.)