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I wasn’t familiar with this neighborhood, but it seemed much less intimidating than the midtown area I had just been driven from. There were actually trees to be seen here and there and even plants outside people’s windows; the streets and sidewalks were only moderately busy, the buildings were not forbiddingly tall, and although the world was still in black-and-white the warm air smelled almost clean, with hints of savory foods and baked goods; many of the passersby seemed dressed not to work in offices but on docks or in pool halls, and pretty girls strolled by in summery dresses or in slacks, as if for a Sunday picnic or perhaps to attend a hootenanny; indeed I saw various young people carrying guitars and banjos and bongo drums, flutes and autoharps and balalaikas, and even the odd ukelele or two.
For a moment I just stood there, letting life and the world flow by me, all these people driving and walking somewhere or other for some reason or other. And here was I, wanting only to take a long drunken nap but not knowing where my bed was.
Perhaps I should just wait until a bus or a garbage truck came down the street at a suitable speed and then step out in front of it.
And after all, wasn’t this just the sort of thing Porter Walker was liable to do?
Yes. Just the sort of idiotic attention-grabbing and inconsiderate thing Porter would do.
However, wasn’t I (I being Arnold) after all supposed to be trying to establish my independence from Miss Evans’s novel and her boring characterizations?
But on the other hand what if Porter’s demise meant -- just as, when one is about to be devoured by a boogey-man in a dream, one suddenly awakens in one’s own bed -- that I would wake up in my own humble cot in the attic of my aunts’ house, breathing a great sigh of relief and vowing never again to read another single sentence of Miss Evans’s book?
Or, would Porter’s extinction mean my own death? Which would further mean -- unless the theology I had been taught was spurious -- that as a suicide my immortal soul would be cast summarily down to the fires of Hell, and Lucky or Nicky or whatever the hell his name was would have the last laugh. For all eternity.
Perhaps, after all, driving me to self-slaughter was the culmination of Lucky’s fiendish master plan.
Okay then, I would not throw myself in front of a truck.
At least not yet I wouldn’t.
I considered two courses of action.
Course one: to find a convenient alleyway and bed down for a couple of hours behind some trash bins.
Course two: to find out where I lived, and then to go there.
I decided provisionally to go for the second course, at least for the time being.
There was a bar on the corner there, the “San Remo Café”. I walked over and went inside.
It was only about three-thirty in the afternoon but the place was already pretty full, and after the relatively fresh summer air on the street I breathed in that comforting universal tavern miasma of whiskey and stale beer, of tobacco smoke and urine.
Four fellows sitting in a booth near the entrance hailed me. I waved at them, but kept on toward the far end of the bar to what I wanted, the wood-and-glass telephone booth I saw in the dimness back there.
The booth was unoccupied. I opened the door, went in, closed the door after me, a little light went on over my head. A telephone directory lay on the little wooden ledge. I opened it up and looked for the name Morgenstern. I found it soon enough, or rather I found several hundred repetitions of it. I leaned my forehead against the cool hard upper edge of the telephone apparatus. I could start dialing Morgensterns at random, but how long would it take before I found my neighbors? Would my head not explode after the twenty-seventh call? Did I even have enough money on me to exchange for dimes and to call every single Morgenstern on these pages?
And then I noticed the number on the telephone dial. It was a SPring-7 exchange. This bar was in Greenwich Village. My apartment, down the hall from the Morgensterns, was in Greenwich Village. Ergo, very likely, my neighbors the Morgensterns also had a SPring-7 exchange. Quickly I scanned the directory columns again. There were only a dozen or so Morgenstern numbers with the SPring-7 prefix, and a tiny blossom of hope bloomed within my sodden soul.
I reached into my pockets, and came up with a quarter, two dimes, four nickels, and some useless pennies. I started dialing. The first three calls produced only awkwardness and embarrassment, but on the fourth one I hit pay dirt.
A woman answered, and I recognized her voice.
“Mrs., uh, Morgenstern?”
“Yeah, is that you, Mr. Walker?”
“Uh, yes, it is.”
“So what’re you calling about?”
“I -- uh -- I was wondering if I got any phone calls today.”
“No. No calls. Why, you expecting one?”
“Uh, no, not really.”
“Then why are you wasting your dime?”
“I --” I had another one of my famous brainwaves. “Well, to tell the truth I just wanted to call you and tell you some good news.”
“You couldn’t wait to get home?”
“Well, I suppose I could have --”
“So what’s the good news? You get a job?”
“No. But I’m getting my book published. My poem.”
“Somebody’s publishing your meshuggenah poem?”
“I don’t believe it. And they’re paying you money for it?”
“I’m proud of you, Mr. Walker. Maybe I should read your poem.”
“Oh, it’s not very good,” I said.
“Ah, you’re just being modest.”
“No, it really is not very good.”
“You make me laugh. Stop by our place tonight. We’ll celebrate.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Maybe he says.”
“Well, I’ll talk to you later, Mrs. Morgenstern,” I said.
“Bye-bye, Mr. Walker. Congratulations.”
Normally I think it’s very rude of people to tear the pages out of telephone directories, but I didn’t have a pencil or pen, so I tore out the page with the Morgensterns’ phone number and their address, which fortunately was on Bleecker Street, the same street I was already on. The building couldn’t be too far away, and soon I would be in my little poet’s apartment, sound asleep.
But then, just as I was about to pull open the folding door of the booth, and only then, it occurred to me to check my wallet. I took it out, opened it up, and there the first card I looked at was my New York chauffeur’s license, with the same Bleecker Street address I had just so laboriously discovered.
This had always been my life’s modus operandi.
If I were given the choice between the simple and obvious solution of a problem and some complicated, absurd and usually doomed song-and-dance, it was a pretty safe bet that I would take the latter course.
Oh well. I put the wallet away, got out of the phone booth and headed for the entrance.
The four fellows who had hailed me before now hailed me again.
“Porter, you reprobate, come join us,” called one slightly cadaverous-looking fair-haired fellow.
I tentatively walked over to the booth. I had an awful feeling that these men were fellow poets, or at least novelists, which might be even worse. But I didn’t want to seem rude, even if they were only characters in a novel.
“Heard you lost your gig, man,” said the fellow who had spoken. He had glasses on, he wore a grey suit and a striped tie, and he looked a little like George Sanders.
I didn’t know what he meant by “gig”, but I pretended I did. Don’t ask me why.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“Sit down, old chum, I’ll buy you a beer.”
On second thought he looked more like Leslie Howard.
“We’ll all buy you a beer,” said a little curly-haired fellow, who looked like Sal Mineo. He was wearing a newsboy's cap and a striped pullover jersey, kind of like the ones French sailors wear, at least the ones in movies.
“What’s ours is yours,” said another dark-haired guy. This one looked like John Garfield. He had glasses on and he was wearing a wrinkled short-sleeved sport shirt.
“Sit the hell down,” said the fourth guy, who looked like Stuart Whitman, or maybe Stephen Boyd. He was dressed the way you might imagine a lumberjack to dress, or maybe one of those guys who climb up telephone poles for a living.
“Well, to tell the truth I’m already slightly drunk,” I said. I was moved by their good-fellowship, but I knew that if I had another beer I would pass out at the table.
“Little early in the day for you, Porter,” said the Leslie Howard guy.
“Well, someone bought me lunch,” I said.
“What?” said the Stephen Boyd guy. “Who bought you lunch?”
I have to admit that this question struck me as slightly unfeeling, as if he found it surprising that anyone would buy me lunch, but I answered his question.
“Well, a guy named Julian Smythe --”
“Smythe? From Smythe & Son?”
“Oh, boy,” said the Leslie Howard guy.
“You mean he’s bought your book?” said the Boyd guy.
“Well, yeah --”
“Congratulations, Porter,” said the Garfield guy.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Damn, I’m gonna write an epic poem,” said the Sal Mineo fellow.
“Where’d he take you to lunch?” asked Boyd.
It was a matter of only of a second or two for me to dredge up the answer to this question.
“The Oak Room, at the Algonquin Hotel.”
“Ritzy,” said Leslie Howard. “What’d ya have?”
“T-bone, huh? Anything good to drink?”
“Yes, Czech Pilsener. And some wine. And brandy.”
“Brandy,” said Stephen Boyd.
“And wine,” said Sal Mineo.
“Any dessert?” asked John Garfield.
“No, I passed on dessert.”
“I hear they have a great cherries jubilee there.”
“And the best I ever got from Cowley over at Viking was half a pastrami sandwich and a cup of coffee,” said Stephen Boyd.
“We mustn’t begrudge others their good fortune, Jack,” said Leslie Howard.
“I’m afraid to ask what your advance was,” said Jack.
“A gentleman doesn’t ask such things,” said Leslie Howard.
“Yeah, but just between us and the wall, what was your advance?” said Sal Mineo.
“Gregory --” said John Garfield.
“He ain’t gotta say if he don’t wanta, Allen,” said Gregory (I was consciously trying to remember their names as they were spoken, since for all I knew these were my best friends).
“Don’t tell them, Porter,” said Leslie Howard.
“Fuck you, Bill,” said Gregory.
“You only wish,” said Bill.
“Our pitcher’s empty,” said Jack.
It’s true, their beer pitcher was empty, and I wondered if I had enough on me to buy them another one, just to get them off my back, but just then I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Let me buy a round,” said a familiar voice.
I turned around.
It was Josh.
(Continued here, and then well into the next several decades.)
(Please consult the right hand column of this page to find an up-to-the-minute listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven© “Schnabel blows my fucking mind.” -- Harold Bloom)