“Jeeze! I must have hit my head ten thousand times today,” Mike said to George Athanasios who was sitting directly across the table. Mike emphasized the point by taking out a bright-orange toy hammer from an army surplus duffle bag and began striking himself repeatedly. The soft-cushioned plastic gave off a surprisingly loud metallic sound.
Many of the customers at the Spartan Coffee Shop on Ninth Avenue turned towards the source of this unexpected noise. They quickly returned their gazes back to their own booths, for Mike was built like a tank. Only five nuns, sitting nearby, were not intimidated. They were wearing the full traditional black habit that you see rarely nowadays. A couple of the sisters gave Mike disapproving glances while the eldest added a tongue clucking. He retaliated by blowing a shrill note on the whistle at the end of the hammer.
George looked at the nuns with an “I give up,” expression on his face. A moment before, he had overheard them discussing the production of The Trojan Women, at the St. Veronica’s Church Theatre. They were debating whether or not if it was suitable fare for senior citizen groups. The youngest of them who was fortyish yet quite cherubic, spoke up and stated that it was important to be reminded about unpleasant matters from time to time.
Mike was about to give them another blast when George took the hammer away and put it back with the other unsold ones. He however couldn’t suppress a grin at Mike’s antics. Also, even though he and Mike had met by accident that afternoon—after 20 years, George could still remember how fearful he used to be of this bully from the old neighborhood.
“Aw, c’mon, I just wanna get back at the old crows for warning the girls in the eighth grade not to wear patent leather shoes.” Mike’s juvenile devilish laugh hadn’t changed a bit. “They also told them not to accept my invites to inspect the classroom closets. Can you imagine that?”
“But Mike, that was so long ago.”
“Georgie—Porgie, I remember things like it was yesterday. Like the time Father O’Malley caught me over the fence at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, I was swiping chestnuts.” Mike pursed his lips and shook his head. “I couldn’t sit down for a week. My Old Aunt Rosie used to say that you could hear his requiem Masses all the way to the bleachers.”
Stavros, the owner, came over. George was his accountant. Stavros had the two top buttons of his shirt open. He exposed a skinny, hairless chest and a blue Mati on a gold chain. The jeweled “Eye,” which according to superstition has the ability to ward off the “Evil Eye,” that while innocently possessed nonetheless herald’s great misfortune.
“What you boys want? We got fresh apples pie.”
“I’m as American as apple pie,” Mike bellowed, as he thumped his chest with his big fists.
“I’m as American as spinach pie,” chuckled George, “but I’ll go for the apple and a coffee.”
Mike nodded as he mimicked Stavros and ordered: “Apples pie, apples pie, coffee, coffee.”
Looking heavenward, the thin man muttered something in Greek before walking away.
George examined the tattoos on Mike’s pale, muscular arms: Sweet Sue, over a heart with an arrow through it on his left, and on his right, inscribed under a skull and crossbones, Born to Die. In Brooklyn, in the early sixties, everybody’s mother warned that tattoos were a sure sign of criminality. Mike wasn’t a thug—he was tough Irish and a few years older than George.
Mike drove a souped up ’55 Thunderbird convertible and he didn’t want anybody’s kid brother hanging around. He would push George away with a “Get lost Cuz,” (Cuz is a Brooklyn version of cousin) especially, at the times when he and Jimmy Athanasios were patrolling for “broads.” Their favorite hunting ground was Murray the K’s Swinging Soiree Rock and Roll Shows at the Paramount. They warmed up for these adventures with hallway echo singing of Earth Angel and in the Still of the Night.
George wasn’t bitter about being left out. He remembered the time that Mike came like “John Wayne” to rescue him from four members of the “Vice Counts” who had ambushed him. Mike’s weightlifter muscles taught those punks that Lincoln Road was not to be invaded. George suffered a bloody nose and the knowledge that he was destined to be an innocent victim. He was too stubborn to run, but not able to fight back effectively.
Athena, the chunky waitress who wore pink uniforms that were too tight and too short, came over to their booth. “How are you guys doing?” She asked, as she leaned over the table to put the deserts and coffees down. “George, maybe you can talk to Stavros. He told me today he wants to spend a fortune to renovate this place to make it new and fancy. In this neighborhood it’s just not worth it.”
“Babe! You sure don’t need any renovating, “Mike interrupted as he took her bust and hip measurements through narrowed eyes.
Athena winked back at the compliment. “George, I want to have a job in January when I come back after visiting my father in Phoenix,” she pleaded.
“I’ll speak to him.” George relished Athena’s usual spunky spirit and her way with the customers. He gazed up at the vases and decorative plates from Greece that depicted ancient shield bearing warriors with plumed helmets and spears at the ready. They were displayed above the shelving behind the counter. They certainly didn’t fit in with the peaceful sheen from the imitation Tiffany glass lamps with their motif of daisies and red poppies. Overhauling the restaurant wouldn’t cure Stavros’s poor taste in décor, George thought as he returned his attention to Mike.
Earlier that sun filled afternoon, he had spied Mike selling the hammers in front of the sculpture of Atlas bearing the earth in the form of a giant sundial, on his shoulders. This ebony-bronze mythological representation dominates Fifth Avenue at the Rockefeller Center complex where the United States Passport Office is housed. Mike’s faded army fatigue jacket and the duffle bag were at his feet as he worked this unseasonably warm mid November day. There was no doubt even after a score of years of lost contact that George knew that this was Mike McGillicuddy.
“Get your husband management tool here!” Mike yelled, stretching out the “here,” like the mates do when they hawk flukes or flounders after the boats dock at Brooklyn’s Sheephead Bay. “Only a dollar, hit them till they holler.” To the men, he was also poetic. “Improve your luck, for a buck,” or, “this is better than a sonnet, when you hit her Easter bonnet.” Tourists were snapping pictures of this giant tapping his square, crew-cut head with the bright-colored hammers.
“Big guy, don’t you remember me?” George shouted, as he nearly jumped on Mike.
“Hey, cuz, I can’t believe it; it’s great to see you. I didn’t think you were alive!” He bellowed, while rumpling George’s wavy wheat hair as if he were a boy. “Hang out we got a lot of catching up to do.” Mike packed up his gear as he offered; “Let’s go for a Budweiser break. I’ve played out this spot anyway.”
George who was not one to be caught dead in a bar, said, “I know a coffee shop on the west side where we can stay as long as we want.” As they walked, George thought about the last time he had seen Mike. Mike had dropped out of school and was pumping gas at the Flaying A Station on Bedford Avenue. He had gotten his girl friend, Sue, pregnant. He was trying to do the right thing. He married her and was going to Erasmus Hall High School at night to prepare for the government’s high school equivalency exam. Mike needed to pass that test in order to be eligible for a job hauling garbage for the Sanitation Department.
“Mike, did you ever get that diploma?”
“Nah, are you kidding, why do you think I’m out on the streets hustling every hour of the day. I’ve got six kids. They like to eat regular. I can’t get sick or let anything happen to me.”
They had paused across the street from where the huge Christmas tree is lighted before TV cameras every December. A bus with the logo Exotic Land Tours stopped to discharge a group of Ivy Leaguer types. George did a double take. George observed that all these collegians were wearing burgundy varsity jackets with cream colored leather sleeves. They were speaking an Asian language.
Out came Mike’s hammers, and into his pocket went Uncle Sam’s Greenbacks. “Be right with you, buddy. The guards chase me from here, so I got to move fast.”
While George was waiting, he studied intently one of the hallmarks of Rockefeller Center, an engraving above a passageway. In the gray Indiana Limestone—embedded in gold leaf was “Isaiah II, IV,” besides two swords which flowed into a plowshare instead of the usual sharp points at the end.
“Georgie, I want to see if they set up the ice skating rink.” George followed Mike, as he crossed the street to where the flags of the entire world’s nations were flowing together. The rope pulleys clicked like telegraph keys against the metal poles in the steady breeze. Mike leaned on the brass railing as he looked down at the deserted white tables used in the summer. Their closed mauve colored umbrellas were piled in a corner. In front of the waterfall was the gilded golden statue of Prometheus that is depicted on souvenir postcards.
“I guess it’s not time for ice skating yet,” Mike said wistfully. “Georgie, I sometimes have my wife and all my gang meet me here, if I have a good day and sell out.” Mike smiled sadly. “We sure have a ball. When you strap on a pair of skates, you’re as good as anyone. If even the Queen of England was there, I’d tell her ‘to eat a scone, and leave us alone.”
George laughed again at Mike’s rhymes. He remembered that Mike had claimed to be the first ever to say, “Up your nose with a rubber hose.” He knew that was so long ago, but the past seemed so clear. George took a deep breath, as if by doing so he could capture this day for all time. He turned to watch the milling crowd that was enjoying an unnaturally warm autumn day. Girls in green-plaid school uniforms tossed pennies into the Channel Garden Pond as they made silent wishes. Broad-leafed palms partially hid handholding couples sitting on the benches
Still gazing down, Mike continued. “They have a great sound system here. One Saturday night, they played Bobby Darin from beginning to end: ‘Splish, Splash,’ ‘Mack the Knife,’ and ‘Back Home in Indiana.’” He turned to George. “I never understood ‘If I Were a Carpenter,’ until I heard it that night. Now, ‘Somewhere beyond the Sea,’ is Sue’s and my sentimental favorite.” Mike dreamily looked straight up. “We were in seventh heaven that night.”
George was wondering what had had become of the legendary singer, when Mike delivered what they used to call “a love tap,” on the arm. It almost knocked him horizontal. He got the message—daydreaming was over it was back to the real world.
Walking West, Mike stopped one more time to go into his routine outside the Broadway Theatre as the matinee of Miss Saigon, broke. This time, Mike was also touting the hammers as an insect annihilation instrument.
“Can you make a living doing this?” George asked with concern.
“Sure, the IRS doesn’t know I exist. It’s all ‘In God we trust, all others pay cash.’ Besides, Sue has me diversified. Anytime there’s a parade, she makes sure I get the right buttons to sell. Last week, I did pretty well with yo-yos and spinning tops that light up. One Christmas, I dressed up as Santa, the thing was, I had an E. T. mask on.” Mike swaggered. “My No. 1 son, junior, snapped shots for five bucks a pop with anybody that wanted to pose with me.”
* * *
“Mike, time flies. My baby sister, Eleni, is married and now she is expecting her first. I’m to be the Godfather,” George proudly stated. “There’s a problem though, she can’t make up her mind which grandparent to name the baby after. It’s a big deal,” he explained. “To the Greeks, it’s their way of immortalizing someone.” George could see through the warmth fogged up windows that day was changing to night outside. Orders for supper were being given to the kitchen. Stavros had the top off one of the urns to brew more coffee. He was silly about his coffee maker. He made sure that Hector, the dishwasher, everyday “spit and polished,” the chrome until it shone.
“Mike, please excuse me, I have to make a phone call.” In the foyer between the glass doors, the payphone was available. George dialed Roosevelt Hospital which was four short blocks away on the Upper West Side. “Doctor Romano, please.”
“Tell him, it’s George Athanasios!”
“Vincent, you won’t believe it, but I bumped into someone from Lincoln Road.” George let that sink in before continuing. “I’ll give you a hint—think of Albert Einstein.”
“No, not Chucky Rogers, he only thought that he knew everything, especially about baseball,” laughed George.
“It’s Big Mike, the Great McGillicuddy himself! Guess what he does?”
“No not Quantitative Analysis? But that’s close, hot shot!’ George laughed sarcastically.
“Can you come over for a minute? Yes, I know that you’re busy. Good I’ll see you.”
George returned to the table with a sly grin on his face.
“Georgie—Porgie, you ‘sonofa gun,’ did you score?”
George didn’t reply, but kept sipping his coffee. He didn’t even acknowledge this other comrade from his youth, when the doctor hurried over.
Mike greeted the tall prematurely graying man in a white jacket, with a stethoscope around his neck with a perfect imitation of the cartoon character Bugs Bunny. “Eh, what’s up, Doc?”
For the second time that day it was: “Don’t you remember me?”
“Doc, I’m in the prime, I’ve never been a sick a day.” Mike retorted squarely.
“It’s me, ‘Fat Vinnie,’ my old man had the shoe repair shop on Flatbush Avenue. We lived in the back. You used to tease me.” The doctor then proceeded to recite:
“Fat and skinny had a race, all around the pillowcase.
Fat fell down, and broke his crown.
And skinny won the race.”
Mike’s jaw dropped. “I don’t believe it. You listened to that dopey Beatles’ music. You used to eat out half the Mister Softee ice-cream truck when it came a ding-a-linging around at night. Man, you must have put some uranium in your cranium.” Mike shook his head slowly. “Now, you’re a big shot doctor. What’s the world coming to?”
“I’ve put behind being a high-priced Park Avenue pill pusher. I’ve also left a wife, who only had two words for me. They were ‘buy me…’” Doctor Romano sat down wearily. “There are more important things to deal with in this world.”
Vincent is part of a task force treating AIDS patients at Roosevelt Hospital,” George interrupted.
“It’s a shame to see so many young lives wasted. I hope someday that we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Mike putting a large hand on Vincent’s shoulder gently rocked him. “Have a cup of coffee. We’ll bull about the old days. One thing I learned is, it don’t pay to sing the ‘Volga Boatman.’ You gotta think on the good times that rolled by.”
Vincent nodded slowly as he got up. “I’d love to stay, but I must get back. Maybe we can get together at a better time.”
“Let’s have a reunion, for the block, for Lincoln Road!” George shouted, getting the words out as fast as he had just thought them.
Vincent’s eyes brightened. “That’s a great thought. Now, that will be something to look forward to.” After shaking hands and hugging Mike, he turned to George. “Let me know the when and the where. I’ll be there, even if I have to switch duty schedules.”
Mike and George both watched Vincent walk away, like he used to do on the rare times he made home plate.
The two remaining friends made plans. They would search for long ago comrades, and a special place to hold the reunion. Stretching, Mike stood up and said quietly. “It is time to go home, Georgie, buddy. Do you know where I can catch the subway to the Staten Island ferry?”
“Yes, I’ll walk out with you and show you the way.” They gave their thanks to Stavros as they left.
Outside, the night air had become chilly. Mike and George zippered their jackets as they stood under a leafless tree from which hung the soiled remnants of stringed crimson and orange pennants from a forgotten event. They treaded up sloping Ninth Avenue to 57th Street. They were about to turn right towards the train station when George stopped. He grasped Mike’s arm.
“Look! Look up there, isn’t that something!”
Over the Hudson River, was the glowing globe of the Full Moon and close to it, so that it seemed to be touching was a large star that was much brighter than the others. “Mike, that’s the superior conjunction between Venus and the Moon. I read about it in the Times. It happens only every 20 years or so. I had no idea it would be this dazzling.”
“Oh, wow! I can’t wait to show Suzie. This kind of thing puts her in the mood.” The big guy said with a wink. “Maybe we’ll have our own conjunction.”
“Mike, you’re stuck in puberty forever.” George laughed, without taking his eyes off the wonder above.
“Is that bad?”
“No, just the way it is, I guess,” replied George softly.
A helicopter with flashing searchlights suddenly appeared crossing the sky. The clattering aircraft broke the spell. The Moon and Venus, and all the shining stars dissolved behind a dark cloud layer that cast a strange shadow on the wide avenue even at night.
George flipped a subway token to Mike, after bear-hugging his friend, he gave the directions. “Take the Downtown Train and get off at Whitehall Street. I’ll see you at the reunion. All the guys from Lincoln Road will be together, I promise. Straight home, take care.”
“Hey, Georgie, what can happen to a chump like me?” You get home safe, buddy.” Mike formed a V with two fingers before turning away into the inky darkness.
* * *
Dear reader, This story takes place in 1988, twenty years after the height of the Vietnam War. It is a vision of three of my boyhood companions had they survived this war. May their souls rest in peace and their memory be eternal.