from Downtown (2) by Pete Hamill

The summer I was sixteen I got a job in Times Square. I worked with a man named Butler, who was heavy, growly, with a whiskey-hurt Hell’s Kitchen face. He said he was fifty-one, but he looked seventy. Our job was to change the show cards in the lobbies of movie houses. Together we would pry out staples and take down the old show cards, which were five or six feet high, four feet wide, all in color. Good-bye, Joel McCrea; so long, Yvonne De Carlo. . .Then I would hold the new show cards steady while Butler stapled them into place. Hello, Rita Hayworth; enjoy the run, Glenn Ford. Then Butler would have a nice long cigarette break before we moved to the next theater.

I loved the job. There I was, at the crossroads of the world, with the breaking news moving around the face of the Times Tower and the waterfall flowing between the giant nude statues of the spectacular Bond Clothes display and smoke rings floating perfectly out of the mouth of the guy on the Camels sign. The sidewalks were jammed with sailors, pimps, cops, streetwalkers, dancers, actors, musicians, and tourists. Where Broadway crossed Seventh Avenue, traffic was a raucous, noisy show, big yellow taxis honking their honks like staccato punctuation from Gershwin, trucks and buses bullying their way downtown, and big New York voices coming out of the din: Whyncha watch where ya goin’, ya dope! Dis ain’t Joisey!

One morning Butler and I were standing under the marquee of the Victoria Theater while he pulled deep drags on a Lucky Strike. Coming down the street was a blind man, complete with dark glasses and tin cup, but no Seeing Eye dog. People dropped coins in the cup and hurried on, too busy for thanks. Then Butler flipped his butt into the street and gestured with his head toward the blind man.

“You see dis guy?” he said. “Ya see him wit’ da cup and all? Well,” he said, his voice suddenly brimming with outrage. “I happen to know for a fact dat he’s got five percent vision in one eye!”

I thought: This life business is not going to be easy

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