Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sweet William by Irving A. Greenfield (Part 1)


Look at it this way: when you’re over the hill and long in the tooth, you’re over the hill and long in the tooth. Nothing is going to change that. The only change that will happen will be that today you are less than you were the previous day. So, what do you do?

If you’re retired, as I am, you try to fill up your days. You go to concerts, visit museums, and take a cruise now and then. But whatever you do, you will eventually wind up sitting in some park or other, especially on a warm spring day, or when the autumn is in the offing, and wonder why you’re chasing yourself. When you find yourself thinking that way, and everything you do bores you, you stop doing things to fill up your day and you let the day pass in its slow, ponderous way. As a reward for having lived a life there is always a park bench, from which an old bored man like me or you can watch the flow of people who still have a purpose for being or at least they are convinced they do.

My bench is in Bowling Green Park, at the north end, in front of the Museum of American Indian, and a couple hundred feet south of the bronze bull, where young women delight in posing for photographs of themselves with their hands on the bull’s balls. It’s a phenomenon I always find fascinating; no matter how many times I’ve seen it. If I were a psychologist or a philosopher, I would probably try to find a deeper meaning in their actions other than their blatant sexuality.

There are other elderly folks who use the park for the same purpose I do. I have a nodding acquaintance with them; though not because they would not like to have a conversation with me, but because I do not want to have a conversation with them. A recitation of their past, and their present ills, would bore me; and my past and present ills are too boring even to me to warrant my speaking about them. Monosyllabic answers and my body language are sufficient to keep any would-be conversationalist at bay, including the few street people who inhabit the area where I sit; and by whatever sense they still possess, avoid any conversational gambits.

On a warm spring day, while I was sitting in the park aware of the burgeoning multicolored flowers around the fountain, the swath of butter yellow forsythia along the fence, and other people sitting on the benches with their faces tilted toward the sun, my life changed. I met William Devlin, a street person, who my wife, Rita, much later derisively dubbed Sweet William.

We had met several times before, but in a much more unusual manner from the way people usually meet. We sized each other up; each of us trying to read the kind of person the other was. He was different from the other street people, who spend their days and sometimes their nights in the park. He was cleaner than his peers; and unlike them, he seldom cursed. He was well spoken; though like them, he was often drunk. But it was one of those times when he wasn’t intoxicated that I actually met him. I quickly realized his position amongst the other street people in the group was equivalent to his being their leader. He never panhandled the way the other men and women in the group did. Yes. There were women with them: three, in fact; and one of them had a shopping cart filled with personal belongings.

For several weeks, whenever the two of us were in the park at the same time, this pas des deux went on. I found myself looking forward to it. Amid the throngs of people in the park, there were two people who were studying each other; and of course, I was curious about what he saw or didn’t see when he studied me. I made a conscious effort not to let my imaginings about him run wild.

But on the day that we actually met, my imagination didn’t have to run wild; the events that occurred were wild enough.

Between eleven-thirty in the morning and two in the afternoon, that particular area of downtown New York was aswarm with people and vehicles moving into two different streams, where Broadway bifurcates into Broadway and Bowling Green, both running South.

I was doing my usual thing, nothing. Maybe it wasn’t nothing. I was thinking. Cogito Ergo Sum; I think, therefore I am. I was making a serious attempt not to think; therefore, I was thinking, thus, according to Descartes, proving my existence.

All of this was taking place with countless images and sounds, creating the required synapses for me to be aware of them; when William, whose name I did not yet know, came directly up to me, and said in a perfectly normal voice, “There will be a very bad accident.” And he pointed to where Broadway divides into Bowling Green. No more than a few seconds later, there was a very bad accident. Before I could ask him how he knew the accident would happen, he and his cronies vanished, no doubt because of the sudden appearance of police in the area.

My wife, Rita, and I were having dinner at the Gateway, a local restaurant, where we knew the owner, the manager, and the assistant manager, Dave, who we considered a very good friend. I wasn’t hungry, and settled for a medium well done, hamburger and a small salad. Rita, who is never hungry, opted for a turkey sandwich.

We were at our usual table, located a few feet from the tail end of the bar. I wasn’t very talkative, but Rita was chatting away about a conversation she’d had earlier in the day with an elderly aunt. Suddenly she stopped talking, and accused me of not listening.

“I was contemplating my navel,” I said glibly.

But she wasn’t going to be put off.

“How about the state of the world; these days it needs much contemplation,” I offered

That didn’t work either. Once onto something, she was not going to let go until she knew what that something was.

I surrendered; I told her about William, and about the accident.

She listened intently; and when I was finished, she patted my hand, and assured me that it was nothing more than coincidence.

To which I replied, “A spooky one, if you ask me.”

“Since when did you start believing in spooks, and such?”

I didn’t mean “spook,” the way she interpreted it, I meant unexplainable, at least with the information I had; namely, what William said to me, and the accident that immediately followed.

“Well, the accident wasn’t staged for me,” I said. “People were seriously injured, and one of the cars was totaled.”

“You might be more important than you think,” she said with a laugh.

Rita had often chided me about my ability to spin out improbable stories by making connections that do not exist, of playing the game of “what if,” so that the entire story crashes, if the first assumption is removed. But this time, I didn’t assume anything; the two events occurred. And my being told that a crash was about to happen didn’t make it happen. Something caused the accident to happen; but certainly something else besides the normal law of cause and effect was operating, at least where William and I were concerned.

“You’re zoning again,” she said. “Your burger must be cold by now.”

I looked down at my plate; I had eaten very little of either the burger or salad. “Not hungry,” I said, motioning the waiter back to our table, and ordering a Stoli on the rocks.
The following morning, I awoke earlier than usual after a crazy, dream-filled, restless night; so early that the sun hadn’t come up yet. I could have gotten up and read the Times, which was probably outside our apartment’s door; or I could have stayed where I was, in bed, and think, which was exactly what I chose to do. It felt comfortable to lie there, under a light blanket listening to the sounds that drifted through the open window. But my focus was on William. By the time I went to bed the previous night, I had already decided to find out more about him and his connection to the accident.

Of the many questions I came up with, the list finally shrank to two: how did he know a crash would occur; and why did he choose to tell me it would happen?

Later, when I arrived at the park, it was already crowded with people eating lunch, or just relaxing in the sun. The bench I usually sat on was already occupied by a man and a woman studying a map of the city, obviously tourists. There was space left on the opposite end of the bench from where they were, and I claimed it. William was nowhere in sight, though his cronies were there. I was tempted to ask them about William, but decided not to. I didn’t want to pay for the information, and I knew I would have to pay.

By two o’clock, the park was less crowded; and though now I had the bench all to myself, I decided “to call it a day” and went to the nearby Starbucks for a Venti cappuccino and a slice of banana nut loaf cake.

The next day, I went through the same routine; and the result was the same with regard to William: he never showed. Then it rained for three days; and I spent a large portion of each day reading. When I wasn’t reading, I was sleeping, or surfing the Internet. Finally, the rain ended; the sun came out, and I was back in the park: and so was William.

He looked at me for a few moments before he joined me on the bench.“That’s why I drink,” he said, without any preliminaries.

After a long pause, I asked, “So, why me? There were plenty of other people around.”

“Just a hunch, he said, as he got to his feet and walked away.

I didn’t move. If he expected me to follow him to where his cronies were, he was mistaken. I was curious but not so curious that I would involve myself with a group of street people. Besides, his abrupt departure annoyed me. I watched him spin the afternoon away with his cronies. When I got home, I was in a sour mood, though I tried not to be.

It was bad enough to be bored, I didn’t need to be depressed as well; and I certainly didn’t need one of those “mothers” of all headaches I’ve been having lately to take hold. I avoided going to the park for several days, and found a place near the river to roost.

Whenever I am in, what I call my Ishmael mood, I sit by the river, or ride the subway to Coney Island, and find a bench on the boardwalk and watch the waves come in. But going to Coney Island, required an effort that I didn’t want to make.
After three days of self-denial, I returned to the park, determined to find out more about William. Again he came over to where I was sitting, as if I were waiting for him; and said, “I missed you. I thought you’d be back the next day.”

“I had other things to do,” I said, watching the antics of two pigeons, the larger one obviously a male; then, after a few moments, I asked, “How did you know that a crash was going to take place?” I turned toward him, and waited for his answer.

“I counted the cars,” he said.


“Like I just said, I counted the cars.”

I said nothing; I was processing, what he said; I was never swift with numbers.

“After a certain number of cars pass a particular place, a crash will occur,” Williams said. “I don’t have anything to do with it, except that I know it will happen.”

“How many cars?” I asked humbly.

“About seven and a half million cars over a two-month period, give or take a couple of days either side.”

“How can you do that?”

“I don’t know how; there are all sorts of numbers in my head, very, very, large ones; most things become numbers to me. That’s why I drink. I don’t want to know the future outcome of anything. You can understand that, can’t you?”

I nodded. The large numbers he mentioned are algorithms. They were the kind of computer-generated numbers used by the military, and other Federal agencies and many commercial enterprises for coded communications and other sensitive tasks.

The days passed. Sometimes William was in the park, and joined me on the bench; and sometimes he stayed with his cronies. He was the arbiter of all their arguments.
Naturally, when I was with him, he told me about himself. He was born in Houston, Texas; and his family lived in Raleigh, North Carolina. He had a one hundred percent disability from a wound he had received in Vietnam, where he had been wounded in the head and had a steel plate to replace that part of his skull that had been shattered by a NVA mortar round. That encapsulated his life; he would tell me no more. Nor would he answer the question I had previously asked: why did he tell me about the crash, and not someone else?

I was as bored as ever. I felt as if I were living inside a nineteenth century Russian novel, or a play by Chekov in which boredom is always a character.
On a particularly hot, humid day when I eschewed the park for a small round table in a nearby air-conditioned Starbucks, I realized I was letting the proverbial “Golden opportunity” slip through my fingers. Not to let that happen, I would prove or disprove, William’s claim to be able to predict the outcome of events, when seeming randomness was involved. I would create a new man; save him from winding up on a dissecting table the way so many street people do.

First, I broached the idea to Rita. She didn’t think too much of it, telling me that disrupting the status quo was never a good idea, especially when it came to someone else’s life. I took the opposite point of view, explaining it would begin a new life for William. The discussion remained unresolved. The problem was William. How far would he be willing to go, to be a new man, and embrace a new life?

He didn’t seem to like the idea, or he was playing coy. I explained my own condition to him. How bored I was; how nothing excited me; that I had no reason to go on living. He wasn’t particularly interested in my plight. It took quite a bit of cajoling to get him to agree. Our first foray was to an off-track betting parlor; there neither of us would look out of place, the way we were dressed.

William took three days to study the stats on the horses, and he read the racing form as if it were the Bible, and he an acolyte. When he was ready, he named the horse: Sweet Chocolate, a thirty to one shot. I put a thousand dollars down to win.

While I was there waiting for the race to begin, I was very much aware of the habitu├ęs; and this subculture that existed in the midst of our so-called “normal world.” The men and women there were waiting for their horse to come in; something, I vividly remembered my mother doing, only she was waiting for her “ship to come in,” though it never left its home port to begin with. She was a loser, as were most of the men and women there.

From my own experience, as a former professor of English literature, whose specialty was the American novel, I remembered that it was a woman’s loss of her house money in James T. Farrell’s novel, Studs Lonigian that gave Studs the opportunity for his first sexual experience. I couldn’t help wonder how many women I saw in the OTB had been, or would be after today’s races, in the same circumstances as the woman in Farrell’s novel.

The loss of a thousand dollars would mean nothing to me; I am financially well set with a good pension, my Social Security, and an extremely profitable portfolio. But if the horse lost, the loss would have a devastating emotional effect. It would throw into doubt William’s claim to be able to predict the outcome of an event that has a statistical foundation. In the race there were only two variables that could not be statistically accounted for: the emotional condition of the jockey and the horse. These were unknowns. Everything else was a factor in the equation.

Our horse, Sweet Chocolate, was in the fifth race. I left the betting to William. Sweet Chocolate was slow at the start, and was a back runner until the turn into the home stretch; where she began to forge ahead on the outside. She won by a full length, and we were thirty thousand dollars richer. After the taxes were taken out, the remaining monies were split evenly between us.

We rode back to the city in a cab, and, to the surprise of the driver, gave him a twenty-dollar tip. William wanted to be dropped off at the South Street Seaport; while I went on to Battery Park Place, where I live. Because of traffic, the usual short ride turned out to be longer than I expected. I didn’t mind it. It gave me time to think about what happened at the track. Could winning have been just a coincidence? William might have made an educated guess. Maybe he had inside information.

As the cab moved slowly forward along Water Street, I also thought about how I would account for the money to Rita; and decided I wouldn’t,at least, not yet. But that night, we went to Mark Joseph’s Steak House on Water Street, and had a marvelous dinner.

William was gone, vanished. I saw his cronies, but I didn’t see him. Not to be conspicuous, I strolled through the park, or I sat on a bench at the South end that gave me a clear view of the North end of the park. But there was no William.

He was, no doubt, on a gigantic tear; and I imagined him in all sorts of perilous situations, lying drunk in an alleyway, or worse, dead. Silently, I railed at his stupidity. He provided me with more excitement than I’d experienced in all the years of my retirement.

Because William was much on my mind, I called an old friend, from the Marine Corps, Philip Gibbs. Even when I knew him better, he had friends who had other friends; who had connections. I told him I needed four false Ids, drivers’ licenses, and Social Security cards to match. He was happy to hear from me, but wasn’t surprised by my request; nor did he ask any questions. We set up “a meet,” as he called it, in Au Bon Pan on lower Broadway at twelve-thirty on Friday.

The last time we’d seen each other, was years ago, at one of our former unit’s reunions in Quantico, Virginia. Even in the worst of conditions, Gibbs somehow managed to get extra ammo, grenades, tins of food, and a couple of bottles of whiskey; but by then, we were evacuated from Hungnam. The ordeal of breaking out of the Chinese encirclement was over; and we were safely aboard transport watching the demolition units blow up the city.

I sat near the window looking out on Bowling Green, and watched the lunch crowd hurry by. The intensity of each individual’s purpose was simultaneously frightening and amusing. Frightening, because their individual purpose, whatever it might have been, seemed to deny the individual purpose of anyone else’s purpose; and by extension, the rest of the world. And it was amusing, because so many different purposes were in play at any single moment, and each individual purpose was apparently oblivious to the other purposes going on at the same time. My purpose was as intense as any of the other; but only in terms of psychological activity, I felt as if all my neurons were having a grand Fourth of July display.