FICTION
I Like the City
Alexander Block

The boy climbed the steps two at a time, emerged into the blinding sun on 59th Street, then hurried to the corner squinting at a scrap of cream colored note paper upon which his father had sketched a map with directions. Stopping in the middle of the street, sweat seeping through his jacket, he got jostled a few times from behind. No one said excuse me, or if they did he couldn’t hear them above the blare of raging car horns. He shaded his eyes, looked across to Central Park South, realized he’d walked the wrong way, then turned around and located the skyscraper with its shiny bluish mirror-like windows.

Out front the gray stone monument that he remembered thrust skyward, its fountain spewing water into the air. People in business attire sat at the edge of the circular moat surrounding the fountain and read, smoked, or drank coffee from Styrofoam cups. It was 8:22.

Leave early, his Dad had said, it’ll take you an hour, but leave an hour and a half. Just to be safe. And watch out on the subway. It’s full of thieves. Keep your money in your front pocket.

It actually had taken just 50 minutes door to door. The boy had relinquished his seat to a woman wearing sandals whose gray hair was wound into a towering bun, after which he tried reading chapter one of The Great Gatsby, but the train was too crowded, he started to get dizzy and he couldn’t follow the story. 

Finding space at a part of the fountain where the fiery sun shone in his eyes, he checked his watch again, sat down and re-opened the book. 
 

Hey, good day there young fella, a little man with bloodshot eyes said, edging in next to him a few moments later. Looking sharp as a tack this morning. Nice coat! He jerked his thumb behind them up at the building. You wouldn’t work here, would you?

My first day, Mister, the boy said, staring ahead at people exiting the Park, avoiding the man’s eyes. I’m a little early though.

Better early than late, that’s what I always say. Still remember my first day of work. A million years back. He tipped his floppy brown suede hat at a passing woman who didn’t appear to see him.

How the time does fly. Wasn’t dressed up in a fancy coat though, tell you that much. Good luck, you’ll do fine, I’m sure. 

Thanks.

Live in The City? If you don’t mind my asking.

The boy glanced at the man with bloodshot eyes. Brooklyn, he said, almost under his breath.

No, the man said. Me too. The friendly borough! Not like here. Most of these people make out like they’re too good to give you the time of day. Too busy. So, what’s your name?

Me? the boy said. Andy.

Well, what do you know. The man extended his hand. Andy, meet Randy. The boy looked down at his cracked rough skin, clasped it for a second, to be polite, and let go.

Life’s full of coincidence. Something you’ll learn growing up. You look like a smart young fella, Andy. You mind your teachers, don’t you?

Usually. The boy laughed.

So, are you fourteen even? Got your working papers? You know you need them, right?

Just turned. The boy lifted the page he was looking at. They changed the rules, you know. You can get papers now the day after.

Is that right? Hmm. Tell me, you don’t root for the Yankees, do you?

Are you serious? Dodgers all the way.

Oh, yeah, Brooklyn, of course. Even now though?

Why not? They got Gilliam and Koufax and Drysdale and Johnny Podres still. Walter Alston.  

Smart kid, you’re right. Go to any games ever? With your Pop?

No, I wish I had, but I was too young still when they played at Ebbets Field.

I’d guess so. So what’s your Pop do? He work here too?

He’s bankrupt. Unfortunately. But before he used to be a musician.

The man slapped his knee. Holy smokes! Really? What’d he play, Andy?

Everything. The saxophone, clarinet, flute. Oh, and a little trumpet. 

That’s what I do, the man said. I play the trumpet.

The boy’s eyes widened. Yeah?

Absolutely. Supposed to actually play a date tonight on 52nd Street, right near here. Know what I mean? A swing club called Chubby’s.

Yeah? You heard of Jimmy Lane ever? That’s the last orchestra my Dad played for.

What? Hey, wait a minute, what’s your Dad’s name? The man started tapping his heel, bouncing up and down. I wonder if, maybe if I know him.

Buddy Marks. I mean, his real name’s Seymour. Actually.
 

The Buddy Marks? The man with the bloodshot eyes removed his hat, whistled and the dusted himself on the knee. Tell you what, your Pop and I go back a ways. Played some dates together during the War. Roseland? Krueger’s Auditorium over in Newark? He snapped his fingers. That’s where I know him! We played there together once. Come to think of it, you look just like him, Andy. The spitting image.

Yeah? That’s what our whole block says too.

It’s true. He pointed. Thought you looked familiar.

Thanks, the boy said, smiling. He turned the page, although he hadn’t been looking at his book.
You play an instrument? 

No. He turned another page and tugged at his collar. Can’t even carry a tune really.

That’s all right, it’s a pleasure to meet you anyway. It sure is. Buddy Marks’s boy, I can’t believe it. You wouldn’t be making this up now, would you?

I swear, the boy said, raising his right hand. Honest. 

Will you give him my regards? From his old friend Randy McNamara. Me and your Pop played the Krueger Auditorium together. In Newark. You’ll remember me later?

Sure I will. I won’t forget you.

Hey, the man said, snapping his fingers again. You think old Buddy and Mrs. Marks and yourself would do me the honor of hearing me play tonight? For old time’s sake?  

Gee, really? I don’t know. How?

Tell you what. Call him up for me, why don’t you, and find out. It’s the Tony Thomas Combo, we’re on 52nd Street at Chubby’s, I’ll have three tickets waiting for you at the door to get in. For free. Table right up front. Front and center.

Jeez, the boy said. For free? You don’t have to do that, Randy.

For Buddy Marks and his family, are you kidding? The man started coughing so hard that he doubled over. Darn right, he said, straightening back up, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. Your Pop’s a real nice gentleman, he’d do the same good turn for me any time, I’m sure. It’s called professional courtesy.

He doesn’t play anymore, the boy said, he gave it up. He’d heard his parents mention professional courtesy before, but he thought it had to do with a dentist not charging another dentist, or something like that. He looked at his watch.

Chubby’s on 52nd, the man said, pointing. You won’t forget? Write it down.

I’ll remember, I promise.

All right, see you there kid. Eight o’clock. Sharp.

Wait though, I’m not sure we’ll be able to. Come, I mean, I don’t know.

The man rose. Well, I sure hope you do, he said, looking out to the Park. It’ll mean a lot to me seeing an old friend’s face in the audience. He swallowed, bit his lip. This is my first time actually playing in a while. Tonight. Fact is, I still got to get my horn out of hock. 

Out of what? the boy asked, glancing up as the man turned back to face him. What’s hock?

Fallen on some hard times lately. I had to pawn my horn to pay my wife’s doctor bills. Poor thing’s got diabetes. Bad. He jingled some coins in his pocket, sniffed, took a wrinkled handkerchief out, teared up and looked the boy in the eye. His lips trembled. I got almost enough. To get it out of hock. So I could play at Chubby’s later. With the Combo. My poor Kathleen. It’s a terrible thing.

Wow, well, hope you get the rest, Randy. I mean, good luck.

The man rubbed his chin and then he blew air out. Hate to ask you, Andy, he said, looking to his shoes, but the thing is, you think I might borrow a dollar off you maybe. Just till later. That’s all I need to get my horn out of hock. One dollar.

Jeez, I don’t know, that’s all I have, the boy said. It’s to buy my lunch with. That and a token.

The man nodded, he folded his hands. I get you. Even seventy-five cents though would be a big help. I’ll have it for you at the door, nice and neat. With all three tickets. To the show. A tear rolled down the man’s cheek. He sniffed back another and looked away towards the Park.

Seventy-five cents? 

The man nodded and dug both hands in his pockets. Then he took them out to hug himself. The thing is, that’s actually all it would take.

The boy looked around the Circle. He removed a small package from his front pants pocket: some coins wrapped up in a paper towel. He unwrapped the three quarters, two dimes and a nickel. The coins were gleaming in the sun. Here you go, Randy, he said, dropping all three quarters into the man’s cupped hands. You’ll have it waiting for me at the door though? At Chubby’s?

The man closed a fist around the coins. Every cent, he said. He shivered. See you later. 52nd Street. Then he turned and walked off limping towards the Park.

 

On his thirty minute lunch break, the boy grabbed a cup of coffee at the Automat, found a pay phone there and called home. 

Everything okay, Andrew? his mother asked. What’s the matter? Did you find it?

Everything’s great. I like The City. The people showing me the ropes here at the office are really nice. And guess what? I even met a friend of Dad’s.

A friend of Dad’s, you said? Who?

This musician. Him and Dad used to play together. And, guess what: he’s doing a show tonight at a place called Chubby’s. He invited us. To hear him play. For free! You, me and Dad. It’s a favor. For old time’s sake, he said.

No kidding? What’s his name?

Randy McNamara.

Who? Cy, she called out, Andy says this old musician friend of yours invited us to hear him tonight in the City. What’s his name again, she asked?

Randy. Randy McNamara. 

There was a pause.

Does Dad remember him?

He doesn’t think so, he said he’s not sure. But there’s a lot of people know Dad and he doesn’t know them. A lot. So, where is it?

Just told you. A place called Chubby’s.

The operator interrupted their conversation and asked him to deposit another ten cents.

This musician, his mother said kind of loud, Randy McNamara, he’s playing tonight at a club called Chubby’s. I don’t know, Cy. Why? You want to actually go all the way into The City?

Mom, I have to hang up, I don’t have any more money the operator said to put in the phone.

You talk to him, what do I know, she said, a bit loud. Then her voice went flat. Andrew. You must be mistaken. Your father says, Chubby’s closed since 1956.

What? That’s impossible, the boy said, just as they were cut off, they must’ve reopened.


Since 2015 AN Block's stories have appeared in Buffalo Almanack (recipient of its Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence), Umbrella Factory Magazine (a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee), The Maine Review, Per Contra, New Pop Lit, Falling Star, Lowestoft Chronicle, and others. He is a Master of Wine who teaches at Boston University and is Contributing Editor at the Improper Bostonian.