There was a man on the corner outside my window across the street from the Third Avenue El. He wore a tan, belted rain coat and a brown felt Fedora. He seemed pensive, preoccupied. I don’t think he was waiting for anyone. It seemed more likely that he found he needed to stop and think a bit, and so he did. Right there.
It was a hot summer’s day and we didn’t have air conditioning. Almost nobody did and so the windows overlooking the streets of our railroad flats were where we spent our days hoping for a breeze, any small hint of moving air.
I had watched Mr. Perkins in 5B wait on the same corner. He waited for a friend, a spouse, his eight year old son—I couldn’t be sure because at one time or another all seemed to appear beside him. He never traveled very far—they all came to him because he used a walker and on Thursday afternoons, the one day I guess he could afford an aide, a uniformed woman would be by his side.
Over time I had watched him grow less and less able, walking slower and slower until one day he was no longer at the corner.
Jessie’s Gyp Joint was the store in front of which the man in the Fedora stood. His hands rifled through his inside coat pocket until he found his pack of Lucky Strikes, turned the pack upside down tapping it until one cigarette protruded. He lit it and I watched the end turn bright orange, the edge of the paper ashen and he blew out the first puff through his mouth and nose simultaneously.
He was a tall man and lean with an aquiline nose and dark, close-set eyes and an inquisitive turn of the lips. Whatever he had been thinking of seemed to have been thought successfully because his face lightened away from the intensity. He seemed almost to smile at himself.
My own father left when I was three. I vaguely remembered his scent, one of cigarettes—the first puff, the first heady smell of tobacco that made me cough, then laugh. That is the only memory I have.
Every man that comes to that corner of Third Avenue and 85th Street reminds me that I have never had a father and makes some longing stir in me and some imaginings rise up. A man I conjure up out of a simple, long ago scent and the sight of a suited man holding a Lucky Strike.
There is a green pole upon which the stop and go signs light up alternately alongside an overfilled trash can. The man with the Fedora steps aside as a homeless man approaches and begins rifling through the trash. He finds a discarded cup and raises it to his lips on the off chance there is anything left in it. A glass coke bottle is lucky—about two small sips remain and then the dark liquid disappears from the very pale green hue that washes over the bottle in the sunlight. He unwraps paper after paper and peeks into brown sandwich bags withdrawing empty butcher wrap.
I watch as the man in the Fedora watches him and I’m not quite able to make out his expression. I can’t read him—whether he is angry or disgusted or sympathetic and I feel frustrated because, for some reason now, it is imperative for me to know. Then I see him reach into his raincoat pocket and pull some change which he extends to the man by the garbage. The man thanks him and heads to Jessie’s Gyp Joint from which he emerges seconds later chewing on a candy bar.
The man in the Fedora once again is lost in thought. The afternoon heat is rising and I wonder how he can stand in suit and coat and hat, but I think he is like my uncle Lennie who also keeps the formality of suit and tie no matter how hot it is.
I feel the small stream of perspiration run from my temple down to my jaw line, then drop from my face onto my lap. My tee shirt and shorts stick to me. My breath is hot, and smells from the street are rising now in the heat wafting up to me. The rank smell of summer streets. Urine from doorways, dog shit. The hot dog vendor’s sauerkraut, the accumulated garbage in the sacks in front of the buildings. Piles of them, open cardboard boxes with debris and rancid garbage.
It is funny I think to myself, that I never particularly watch the women. I am only vaguely aware of women passing in their checkered Peck and Peck suits; their hair in bobs and page boys their chunky heels tap taping the grey sidewalks. I’m aware when Mrs. Finch in 3C walks her two Pekinese Chu Chin and Chow Toy. They are ugly little dogs, I think—but God knows I would never tell her—their faces smashed in; tongues hanging out; long brown and black hair. They pant, and drool trickles down their tiny heads. It makes me feel as if their ratty fur is in my mouth and I want to spit in some automatic reflex to it. But, mostly unaware of the women, I am always aware of the men, and it is not lost on me that I am always looking for a father—but not just any father—my father.
The man on the corner in the Fedora fiddles with his wristwatch now, raises it to his ear as if to make sure it is ticking. Time must be going very slowly for him. It is for me too. Last year when I was still in grade school it seemed days went quickly and I was always running out of them. Now, with my new awakening to longing, they move slowly but inevitably.
Finally, the man in the Fedora looks up. He sees me. I think to wave even tentatively because probably he needs encouragement to come up here. So eventually I wave and he waves back and smiles but he doesn’t move. It is one of those smiles that admits to someone being cute, a child, and is somewhat dismissive. I am certain he must know who I am. I am certain he must come upstairs after long, long last. He lights another cigarette and I can smell it as I used to, and it makes me cough then giggle. He is moving now, removing his hat for just a minute as he wipes the sweat from his bald head with his handkerchief than replaces the Fedora to his head.
He steps off the curb now and across the street towards what must be my building and I lose sight of him. After all these years I know he is coming back, and now crossing the street to ring the bell downstairs. And I wait in the heat in the darkening flat for the ring. But there is only silence.