ACQUAINTED WITH THE NIGHT
By Sam Garfield
Nov. 26, 1956
(Hyde Park) –The place was quiet and dark, had the feel of an early morning bar. But we grabbed two stools anyway.
Larry, an old college pal of mine was in town –invited to give a guest lecture (economics, ugh!) at the U. of Chicago– so we decided to meet and catch up. The late autumn cocktail hour had a special glow to it –the night drifting in early, offering a comfortable backdrop to an enjoyable time with a good friend. The barkeep’s pour was healthy, a good beginning to a mutual ritual we’ve enjoyed for the past few decades. As usual, our conversation skipped and jumped everywhere: “Too bad Ike can’t run again in ’60. He could beat Stevenson again for a Presidential Hat Trick…Huntley-Brinkley, hell, it sounds like a law firm, not a news team…The White Sox ever gonna win a pennant; what’s it been thirty-seven, thirty-eight years?”
We were on our second drink when the old woman at the end of the bar asked Larry, “What great looking eyeglasses. Are they prescription?”
“But of course,” he answered.
Somehow she took that to mean…“Come on down and join us.”
Suddenly, the way a misty November evening quickly overtakes the daylight, she was there, between us, wanting to shake our hands. (I realized I hadn’t seen her come through the front door.) “Here we go,” Larry whispered. She was unkempt, like the bar; a dark, rumpled raincoat hung from her frail body. I tried not to make eye contact.
“Please, I need your help,” she said in a smoky voice, one acquainted with the night. “My ten-year-old grandson was shot and killed last week. Maybe you read about it? We need money to give him a burial so they won’t put him in Potter’s Field.”
I expected a come-on but nothing this bold. I looked at Larry; his eyes said he would follow my lead.
The old woman then put a rain-soaked piece of paper on the bar.
“Please, if you give me some money and sign this paper, I’ll write your name on the ribbon that will lie on his casket.”
I wanted my brain to take over, to ask her a series of rapid-fire questions. Pin her to the wall, damn her. How could she think we’d fall for that story? Instead, I said nothing. The long, uncomfortable silence that followed gave me time to realize what a truly ugly place I was in; and to think about my three kids.
I handed the woman $7 and wrote my name on the paper. Larry gave her a twenty and signed “anonymous.”
She thanked us, and asked, “How was your Thanksgiving?”
“Fine,” Larry said, “how ‘bout yours?”
“Oh, great but I ate so much turkey and dressing I almost got sick. God bless you both.”
With that the old woman in the rumpled raincoat walked into the night…with my signature and $27 of our money.
“There goes your tip,” Larry told the bartender, who, like a stage, manager, had watched our brief encounter with the old woman from the corner of the bar.
“Grandson shot and killed, that’s a load of crap,” he weighed in. “I’ve seen her around, comes in here every once in a while looking for a handout. Her grandson was never shot and killed.”
Well, I thought, let’s hope not.
Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.