As mentioned in an earlier post, I will be placing memoir excerpts in the blog as the writing of the memoir progresses. Here is an excerpt.
I am living with less than a handful of homeless boys around my age in an abandoned three story brick house on 53 Street in Brooklyn between Third and Fourth avenues. It is very late November when I take up my quarters there. I take a small room upstairs in the front of the house. It has a door that closes and working electricity. The other boys, none of whom I know, take up quarters downstairs. It is our circumstances that have drawn us together. We develop a bond and look out for each other. We are the neighborhood strays. I have just turned 18.
There is no running water in the house but we do find a cold water source in the dark damp unfinished basement. A pipe runs across the low ceiling of the basement and with one working tap. When turned on it releases an aggressive stream of ice cold water. I find a two-coil hotplate and a small dusty black and white TV in a closet. I bring them to my room. To my great joy they both work, kind of. The hot plate works wonderfully and when the two coils glow red they generate enough heat to keep my room nice and toasty. The TV gets only two channels; NBC on Channel 4 and WOR on Channel 9. This is good news because not only do I actually have a TV but Channel 4 has Johnny Carson and Channel 9 has the New York Rangers.
There is an old stained mattress that must have been for a cot that I drag into my room. My girlfriend, Lyn, brings me some blankets. I am sitting in my room nice and warm, instant coffee freshly made, watching the Rangers, smoking a cigarette, safe from the cold. I think it doesn’t get any better than this. There is the sound of movement outside the door. I pick up my knife, hold it pressed against my thigh and open the door. A broken-eared male German Shepherd is sitting there looking up at me. His tail sweeps back and forth across the dusty floor. He has no collar. He gives me a look, then walks past me into my room and curls up on the mattress.
I go downstairs to the other boys. “Hey, any you guys have a dog?”
One of them says, “That’s Shep, man. He’s a stray. Hangs around the neighborhood. Nice dog but he ain’t ours. Everybody knows him though. Smart fucking dog.”
Back in my room Shep is sleeping. I sit down next to him; he shifts his head onto my lap, gives my hand a lick, and falls back into sleep. I am remembering my Dad telling me that when he was a boy he and his brother had a male Shepherd Collie mix they both loved. His name was Shep.
Shep and I join lives and are pretty much inseparable. He stays by my side and at night keeps the rats and mice out of the room. There are a few occasions that first week when a rat or mouse runs across the room and me at night but Shep is all about rapid response and soon the intrusions stop. Shep is protection, warmth, friendship and a damned fine conversationalist, thank you very much. It is not long before he loves Johnny Carson and, like me, is a devoted fan of the New York Rangers. I think he likes Eddie Giacomin as much as I do, although I suspect he favors Rod Gilbert more than he lets on.
I learn that Shep is beyond smart. In fact, he’s brilliant. I say, “Go meet Lyn at the train,” and he takes off and when she comes out the train station a few blocks away, there he is waiting for her at the top step. Sometimes he walks her back when it’s very cold because I don’t have a winter coat. As soon as she is safe in the station he returns. The sound of him bolting up the stairs is the sound of reassurance.
I am trying to figure a way to get off the street. I call John Jay College where my Dad used to teach. A man that knew him comes to the phone. I tell him I’m living on the street and does he know anyone that can help me. He gives me the name of a priest he knows. I call the priest and go to see him the next day in the city. The priest is a man of medium build with snow white hair, blue eyes; it takes me only seconds to realize he is a genuinely kind man. He tells me he knows a good man from Long Island that, like me, had been through difficult times and has become a very successful general contractor. He says he is quite sure that when he tells the Good Man from Long Island about me he will help me. The priest takes me to lunch. The restaurant is warm and there is comfort in the shelter of a booth. We order coffee. I am afraid to ask for more so I slowly sip my coffee. “Thank you, father,” I say.
“You need to eat, my son,” he says.
I say a hard thing to say, “I don’t have any money, father.”
“That’s okay, son. You order anything you want. Anything particular you like?”
I can’t look up because he will see my wet eyes. I say, “Grilled cheese.”
“Do you now. Well, we are alike there, my son, I can tell you. I love grilled cheese, but I always need more than one sandwich, how about you?”
“One’s okay, father.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t live with myself knowing I ordered two and you had one. That would be the height of unfairness, put things out of balance it would. I’ll order us both two and we’ll go from there. And some fries, I think we can use a plate of fries.”
I have to whisper my thank you because I know if my vocal cords move too much what self-control I have left will vanish and I will burst into tears here in this restaurant with a nice priest whose kindness overwhelms me. I am not surprised when the priest tells me this is one of the very rare times his eyes are bigger than his stomach. He asks me if I would be good enough to consider handling a third grilled cheese sandwich. I can.