NYC Pigeon Spotting in the 1950s

To even an unpracticed eye the kid would have looked out-of-place, walking alone in a dawdling way, generally up toward the Park. It was cold, but he wasn’t wearing an overcoat; might not have even had one. What he was wearing stuck out: A gray sports coat with pads in the shoulders. Brown slacks with pleats. He didn’t look at all city-smart, seemed too curious about things, looking up to marvel at how high the buildings were, walking uncertainly, stopping a lot to pause and look around. 

Now me, I’ve got a practiced eye. Once I spotted him I kept looking down at my paper till he passed by and then when he got about half a block away I started following him. He walked north to within a couple of blocks of the Park and then turned and turned east over to Madison. Then he walked back downtown a couple of blocks and crossed the street and walked back up north to about 56th Street. He stopped for a minute to look all around some more and then he went back west into the West side. He was looking for a job, I figured, but the only places with jobs up there were the employment agencies and he wasn’t stopping at any of them. He didn’t even have a paper. He wasn’t from New York. He didn’t know Manhattan. 

While I followed him, still sizing him up, I checked myself over: Brown topcoat, business-like, tie, brown felt hat, shoes scotch grain with a nice conservative shine, suit trousers with just a little break in them. And remembering my face could be too wise if I don’t watch it, but I’ve got a way of creasing it up that turns it from Wise Guy into Forlorn Hope. I’m short, skinny and middle aged; I knew I wouldn’t scare the kid if I didn’t forget and act too aggressive.

He had just turned north to walk up toward the Park again when I came up close behind him. There weren’t any cops around.

“Say, Mister.”

He stopped and turned around.

I screwed up my face and said, “I’m terribly embarrassed to stop you like this, gee you looked so stiff and stern when you went by, but I’m just in an awful fix and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

It’s right here that they usually make their first quick decision, either break it off angry or stay to hear the rest. This kid just stood there, so I kept talking.

“I’ve lost my wallet. I was eating breakfast in a restaurant and I reached in my pocket to pay and it was gone. I can’t imagine where I lost it, but I went back over all the places I’ve been since I got here yesterday afternoon and I just can’t find it. This is just an awful fix.”

His eyes were moving around, he was getting nervous, so I hurried the next part: “I just landed a job up in Worcester and it starts tonight and if I don’t get back up there I’ll have lost it for sure and then I’ll really be stuck.”

“What do you do?”

He seemed relieved when he said that, like he’d been holding back until something intelligent occurred to him to say or ask.

“I’m a vaudeville entertainer.”

Now you might think that’s too much, that it’d tip a guy off, and sure enough the kid’s face got a little incredulous. But strangely enough I’ve found that something like that, played right, does the trick better than something typical and dull. Maybe it’s because people want to believe you, believe that they’ve just met somebody different and interesting. I don’t know; it just seems to work.

Of course you have to be able to back it up. 

“Don’t you believe me?” He had kind of turned way and started to walk on slowly, so I walked with him at his side, laughing nervously and looking forlorn.

“How can I prove it to you, Mister, oh how can I convince you?” I stopped and spread my hands out wide:

“I’m certainly no bum as you can see…

“A gent like me keeps high class company…”

He stopped to see what the hell was up so I kept it going:

“Under Lady Luck’s approving glance…

“We always strive to have a chance…

“But out of favor sometimes fall…

“The finest, truest, of us all…

“Of these, kind sir, there are too few…

“Among them I count me,” touching my hat, “and you.”

And I did a little bow. And he smiled and said that was pretty good.

“That’s nothing, Mister,” I said, and started walking on and he walked too. “Please tell me your name and where you’re from and I’ll show you what I can do.”

He hesitated. Then he said, “My name is Arthur. I’m from Salt Lake City, Utah.”

The way he said Utah, you’d have thought there were forty-eight Salt Lake Cities.

I looked up at the sky for a minute while we walked, and then I said, “OK, Arthur.”

“From out of the valleys, across the plain…

“Through snow and hail and sleet and rain…

“Traveling cross-country all night and day…

“Came a man called Art from Utah way…

“Came a man named Art with a dream so tall…

“The Great Salt Lake couldn’t hold it all…

“As he headed east, it grew and grew…

“Till in New York City it was bound to come true!”

I cut it out then. A little of that goes a long way.

But the kid was truly amazed and said so, and as we walked he asked me what I was in need of. It’s always best to do that, of course, let them ask what they can do for you. Sometimes they won’t ask but usually, eventually, they will. 

I stopped walking and turned to him, scrunching up my face again. “Arthur, I’ve got to have the fare up to Worcester, or else I’m out of a job.”

He stood there a minute with his eyes looking everywhere but at me, and then asked me how much it was. The way he asked he might have thought it was just a cross-town bus ride away, maybe twenty-five cents.

“Cheapest way is by Greyhound. Seven twenty-two.”

He smiled uncomfortably and his face started to get all red, and I knew he was embarrassed because he wanted badly to call me a liar or something but he couldn’t figure out a way to do it politely.

“It’s the truth! Don’t you believe me? Seven twenty-two! Worcester, Mass! You can call the bus depot!” He could have too, because that’s what it is.

His face was still red and he was still smiling like it hurt. He said he didn’t have that much. This can be a tough part because if you start asking for part fare they can get suspicious. But by now you’ve guessed that with this kid I didn’t think that would be a problem.

`”Oh,” I said. “Well, Arthur, if I just had part of the fare, maybe I could borrow the rest someplace else. Because that’s what it would be. A loan. With interest.” While I was talking I had sort of turned him in against the wall of a building so that he had backed slowly up into it without realizing it, I’m sure.

“Couldn’t you call your employer up in Worcester and ask him to send you the money?” 

“Now, Arthur, how would it look if I did that? Before I even start working for the guy?”

“But you must have some friends in the show up there. And don’t you have any friends here in New York?”

“Arthur, I’m a single, and I happen to have very few friends. None as a matter of fact in Worcester or New York. I came down here last night just to see the sights—I was so happy, I’d just got the job—I had been out of work such a long time. And then the impossible happened.”

I really started giving him the face then.

“Somebody’s got to help me or I’m a goner. Please, Arthur, won’t you help me? Loan me what you can and, I don’t know how, but I’ll manage somehow to get the rest of it and buy a ticket and report to my job up there at Worcester tonight. Please, Arthur, I’ll pay you back, honest I will, I’m an honest man. And I’ll pay you interest besides.”

“No,” he said quietly. “No. No. I wouldn’t want any interest.” 

He was leaning back against the wall, without any idea of my having cornered him there, I’m sure, and he had this strange determined look in his eyes like he was really concentrating. “I don’t have the cash,” he said. “But I do have a twenty dollar traveller’s check.” 

I know when to shut up. I stood there a minute looking at him, keeping my awful face going at him while he stood with his back against the building staring intently at something that might have been across the street. 

So then I got it. Oh boy, then I knew what he was staring at. I mean I knew what it was. I knew then that I was supposed to be part of this kid’s grand experiment. That I was going to prove for him that it pays to have faith in your fellow man.

In my profession, this is what you rarely find but always look for. And when you do find it you just want to pounce on it, destroy it. Douse that light. And see and enjoy their disappointment. 

It sics you on. 

So I waited a little more and then I said, “Oh gee, Arthur, if you could only help me with the fare to Worcester, I’d be ever so grateful. I’ll send it back as soon as I get paid, with a little extra for your trouble.”

“No,” he said, just like I figured he would. “I don’t want anything extra. Just what I lend you today. So now we just have to find a bank. Come on,” he said, and I stepped aside to let him lead the way.

A block farther on we found a bank and I went in with him as far as one of the writing tables in the middle. He took out his little green checkbook and opened it and I could see that it was his last traveller’s check. He took it up to a teller and in a minute came back with the money. He gave me a five and two ones and two dimes and two pennies and I gulped and looked forlorn like I couldn’t say anything for a minute. Then I gurgled for him to give me his address. He wrote it out on the back of a deposit slip and gave it to me, and we went outside. It was one of the avenues, Sixth I think, late in the afternoon, and the sidewalk was crowded. I turned to him in front of the bank with my face all screwed up horrible and cried real tears. Not just welling up in my eyes either, but actually streaming down my face; it’s not easy, but it can be learned. “Oh thank you! Thank you!” I cried, taking his hand in both of mine and wringing it. “Goodbye! Goodbye! I’ll never forget you!” and I turned, wiping my eyes and covering my mouth so he wouldn’t hear me laughing out loud walking away into the crowd real fast.


It sics you on. So I didn’t let it die there on the avenue outside the bank.

The kid still had almost thirteen dollars left of the traveller’s check. He had written on the back of the deposit slip that he was staying at the William Sloane House YMCA at 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, so the next morning I got one of my pals and we stationed ourselves just off the sidewalk in an alcove of an office building on 34th east towards Eighth Avenue.

My pal is young and big, just learning. He’s pretty stupid, still dresses like a thug and comes on too strong. But I thought this would be good practice for him so I told him about the kid and what I’d been able to do the day before and that I didn’t know what would happen but that we’d split even if he was able to pull anything off.

Just before nine the kid came out of the Sloane House and started walking down our way. I pointed him out to my pal and stepped back into the alcove. When the kid got almost to the entrance of the building, my dumb pal ran out, just rushed out—he’ll never learn—and stopped him with both hands on his shoulders and bellowed into his ear, “HEY FELLA CAN YOU HELP ME WITH THE FARE TO BUFFALO?”

Even with that big bozo in front of him, the kid hardly stopped moving, but I had time to see his face go redder than it ever had the day before. He plunged his hands into my pal’s gut and snarled “get out of my way god damn you,” pushed him out of the way and kept going without looking back, on down the sidewalk and across Eighth Avenue against the light.

Now if it had been me, I’d have been able to make something out of it. When he pushed out like that, I would have flattened myself right out on the pavement and screamed agony and he would have had to come back. I would have threatened to call a cop and conned the kid out of at least a few bucks taxi fare to the hospital. But my dumb ox of a pal just stood there gaping, probably wondering whether to run after him and sock him. I don’t think he’ll ever learn.

Well, maybe the kid didn’t get had as bad as he could have. Seven dollars and change was all he’d lost, and if I’d been really wise to him I probably could have got most of the twenty. But when I think back to the expression on his face when my pal rushed up the way he did and grabbed him that morning, I figure I screwed the kid up just about as good as I could. 

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