A Spring Evening in 1957
By Harry Reynolds
On a spring evening in 1957, I walked down the steps of the U.S. Courthouse in Foley Square, where, having recently graduated from NYU Law School, I was clerk to a judge. On impulse, I decided not to take the bus but to walk to my Lower East Side home. When I reached Chinatown, I stopped at a traffic intersection and while waiting for the light to change I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw a 6 foot 4 vagrant standing at an angle to the pavement, obviously in an alcoholic mist. He had very long hair of a style not yet popular. Indeed, he looked like someone who had just trudged out of the Kentucky woods. To avoid disclosure, I will call him “Eddie’’.
I had known Eddie, a sad Irish lad, when we were boys in a Lower East Side parochial school, but I had not seen him for years. In school he had told everyone that I was his older brother. As he stood there, seeming as defenseless as he seemed as a boy, I saw that he didn’t recognize me.
“Eddie”, I said, “what are you doing here?” He said, drunkenly, that he needed money “to gas up” his imaginary car. I took out my wallet and gave him all the money that I had. I was stunned. He turned and staggered into the passing crowd.
Several months later, I received a call from Eddie. He said that he believed he had seen me on the Bowery. Was that true? I said yes. He said he was calling from a VA hospital. A few weeks after meeting me he was found by a foot patrolman at night lying on a pavement in the Bowery. He had been thrown off a roof. The police officer examined him and concluded that he was dead. The officer called for an ambulance. It arrived and an attendant leapt out and quickly examined Eddie whom he, too determined was dead. He called for the morgue van. On its arrival, a body bag was drawn out, Eddie was slid into the bag, the bag was heaved into the van, and the van drove off for the morgue at Bellevue Hospital. There the bag was heaved onto the loading platform.
Shortly thereafter, Eddie slowly started to become conscious. He smelled the natural rubber that lined the body bag and began to panic, terrified at his broken and bloody condition inside the darkness of that bag. He tried frantically to find an opening and, after feeling the metal underlining of the bag’s long zipper, he found a space at its top. There he inserted his finger and pulled down hard, for it resisted his pull on it. Nevertheless, he succeeded in drawing it down and, looking up, he saw . .the face of a doctor who had suddenly looked down at Eddie’s face and shouted, “Jesus Christ! This guy’s got bubbles coming out of his mouth! He’s alive!” He took Eddie’s hand and laughingly pulled him up as if he were the doctor’s creation. There was laughter and a clapping of hands among the morgue attendants as the doctor, his arms extended towards Eddie’s swaying body, slowly walked around him.
Eddie soon found himself in a V.A. hospital battling for his life. Unknown to Eddie, a young man who had been in a car crash and had been assigned the same doctor as Eddie, was dying on an upper floor as Eddie’s doctor strove to save that young man’s life. After death took that young man, who left a wife and children, the doctor told Eddie that, given Eddie’s history and lack of promise, if the choice of who would die were in his hands, he would have let Eddie die. Though Eddie did not tell me how it came about, Eddie met and married the dead man’s wife, a story I would not believe but for the fact that I later learned that it was true. When Eddie told me of the VA doctor’s cruel statement to him, I was quick to judge the doctor harshly. Eddie cautioned me against quick judgments. He said that he gradually became friends with the doctor and learned that the doctor was actually a kind man who, like Eddie, had a monkey on his back. The doctor, said Eddie, was an alcoholic.
Though Eddie had been drinking heavily since he was sixteen, and had continued to do so in the Merchant Marine and in the Marine Corps, he never drank again. He became for decades a devoted member of AA, obtained a high school certificate, and became a senior vice-president of a substantial company.
Sometimes at night he calls me and we nudge one another in a play of words, “caffling” they call it in Ireland, a kind of jabbing in the ribs, nothing unusual for us to do, for we were like brothers in that grim parochial school, and I was the elder one.