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By Donald E. Westlake
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1973 J. Morgan Cunningham
All rights reserved.
Rain poured down like water out of the cloud-covered sky, which was above the city. Every intricate individual drop of the hydrous stuff, composed of two parts hydrogen for every lonely solitary part oxygen, fell on the already-drenched city like a cloudburst.
It was a cloudburst.
The rain fell everywhere on the city, on rich and on poor, on young and on old, on happy and on unhappy—but not on people inside their houses. If the roofs were okay. The rain fell on a tramp steamer of Liberian registry, Serbo-Croat captain and Siamese crew being loaded with rocking chairs for Terra del Fuego, girlie calendars on a consignment to Ulan Bator, and cartons of Smucker's strawberry preserves bound for the Cape of Good Hope, at Pier 46, downtown. The rain fell on the Daily News trucks, gaily green, tootling their wares hither and yon throughout the great city, bringing the daily news to the citizens of Metropolis: New York. And throwing the bundles in puddles outside the candy stores, they should be more careful.
This was the third day of rain, drenching the already-drenched city. Odd items flowed in the gutters: Popsicle wrappers, good for stockings if you send them in with a quarter; tickets to hit shows; suicide notes; a bottle with a message inside, dated June 7, 1884; a one-inch-long spaceship from the planet Gu which had inadvertently crash-landed at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and West 49th Street and was now being inexorably swept toward its inexorable doom of both itself and its entire microscopic crew; and here and there the three-sixteenths-inch-long roach of a marijuana reefer, dropped by some doomed ten-year-old staggering through the rain in search of cheap kicks. Oh, the stories those gutters could have told—fiction, perhaps, but a scant raindrop (or could it be a teardrop?) from reality—if only there had been someone, some artisan, some born storyteller, to crawl through them and pick up the nuggets within.
But there was no such. There was only the early-morning workers, out with their lunch buckets at six in the morning on the third day of rain, drenching the already-drenched city, walking through the raindrops with their coat collars turned up against the rain, going to work.
The rain fell on the workers, bound for work. And it fell on the evening before's revelers, homeward bound after a full evening of reveling, dancing up the center stripe of Fifth Avenue in top hat and tails, kissing one another's wives in the Plaza Fountain, having a pickle at the Gaiety Delicatessen on West 47th Street off Times Square—and assuring one another they were having fun. And it fell on the cop on the beat, the burglar on the roof, the ambulance rushing across Queens with an emergency appendectomy in the back, the homosexuals cowering under trees in all the city's parks but one ...
And the rain fell on the buildings. It fell on the new Madison Square Garden, the cupcake-shaped Hall of Culture where last night was seen Poundage, the new rock 'n' roll sensation, and where tonight world-famed Evangelist Billy Cracker would appear, before a somewhat older group. And it fell on the Brooklyn Bridge, Mecca of so many would-be suicides. And it fell on the Bronx Botanical Gardens, which was nice. And it fell on Grand Army Plaza, with its green statues of the Civil War boys in blue. And it fell on the Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives.
The Bryant Park Comfort Station, situated on the south side of West 42nd Street midway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, stands on land once completely under water, back before the turn of the century when this was the Croton Reservoir. But progress must come, even to reservoirs, and in the first decade of this, our fast-paced twentieth century, busy workmen from all over the civilized world and beyond gathered together, filled with high purpose, to empty the Croton Reservoir and erect on the site of its former standing the new central branch of the New York Public Library, and the leafy landscape called Bryant Park, and last but not least the Bryant Park Comfort Station.
The Bryant Park Comfort Station, a low granite structure of Greek Revival design, was designed by the New York architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, who threw in plans for the library as well. Approximately twenty feet square, the building is dominated by a large opaque oval window on its north face, facing West 42nd Street, and by a large rectangular door on the west face, surmounted by the stirring inscription MEN. A stone filigree makes a tasty design about the upper walls, alternating ivy garlands with cow skulls, evocative of Death Valley: terribly meaningful in the architects' overall planned impact of visual and tensile impact.
Constructed as a part of the ninth contract let on the Public Library/Bryant Park construction, a contract that included as well the treatment of the main building's south court, a second comfort station elsewhere on the grounds for females, the approaches to the main building, and the sculpture on the Fifth Avenue front, the contract was awarded to Norcross Brothers Company on November 5, 1908, they just happening to have been the low bid again. The drawings and specifications had actually been turned over to the Park Department in September of 1907, the previous year prior, but it takes a while in our fast-paced modern world to get major projects like the construction of a comfort station actually under way.
In any event, the Bryant Park Comfort Station was completed in early 1911 and continues to stand to this very day, a mute but not inglorious tribute to the Messrs. Carrère and Hastings, and to the low-bidding Norcross Brothers as well. A fine bunch of men all. And a fine Comfort Station.
It's funny, thought Fred Dingbat. But it wasn't funny, not really, not ever. And especially not when it was raining. And especially not when it was raining on the Bryant Park Comfort Station, which Fred could see outside his rain-streaked bus windshield, ahead of him on the right, gray and somehow grim, almost menacing, in the early-morning semidarkness and with all the rain drenching an already-drenched city.
It always reminded him of Korea. But then again, what didn't? A picnic in the park, an evening in front of the television set, a Mets home game, even the Bryant Park Comfort Station, it could all bring it back, those frozen moments in Korea, when ...
But no. He wasn't going to dwell on that anymore; that was all done and finished and over and behind him and through and kaput and forgotten and terminated and fini and settled and no longer current now. Now was this bus, the 42nd Street Crosstown, a GM Citycruiser, dark green and light green outside, with light green seats inside all in a row, fluorescent lights warming and comforting him in the rearview mirror as he drove the breadth of the city, from Pier 82 at Twelfth Avenue all the way across 42nd Street to United Nations Headquarters at the avenue called First. A microcosm of America; nay, of the world. Beginning at the Hudson River piers, where the ships from all nations put in to give and to receive, the air alive with a polyglot of tongues and languages, the shouting of stevedores, the guttural imprecations of snared smugglers, the weeping of tiny lost Chinese waifs about to fall off the end of a pier; all there, all vibrant and alive, telling of lands far off across the ocean waves. And across the street, the Sheraton Motor Inn, a modern hostelry of cultured rooms, efficient service, and seething undercover goings-on.
And then the first block, from Twelfth Avenue to Eleventh Avenue, with its truck docks and warehouses, redolent with the spices of the Indies, the Volkswagens of Europe, the dried fish of Ultima Thule. And the second block, Eleventh Avenue to Tenth Avenue, bracketed by the TraveLodge, where the same rinky-dink is going on as back at the Sheraton Motor Inn.
Then the first half-block, Tenth Avenue to Dyer Avenue, the latter being the Lincoln Tunnel exit, bringing into the city the rich, faintly foreign life-stream of Hudson and Bergen counties, culminating in the huge white-faced parking garage with its mouth open like the open maw of a whale, waiting to swallow all the Jersey Jonahs. But even before that—oh, lest we forget—the West Side Airlines Terminal, first step on the anxiety-ridden voyage to Newark Airport, that complex organism spread out like a gigantic complex watch ticking away across the Hudson River.
And now the pace quickens. Dyer Avenue to Ninth Avenue, and three theaters all in a row: Mermaid, Midway, and Maidman (the way men like 'em). Ninth Avenue to Eighth Avenue, the McGraw-Hill Building—a book publisher, standing for book publishers everywhere in this giant Gotham, keepers of the flame, promulgators of culture to the masses. Eighth Avenue to Seventh Avenue, where Broadway angles in from the main theater district to form Times Square, not very far from the building where the Times is housed; along here, the movie palaces, the all-night grind houses where broken men, haunted by their past, can spend a few pitiful hours in Sneaky Pete and celluloid forgetfulness in dreams dreamed by other dreamers. New York, New York, is sure some town.
Times Square to Sixth Avenue: girlie-magazine stores, movie theaters, and upstairs in the grimy offices the import-export men with the code books hidden in the chandelier, the "model" agencies, the check-cashing services where a million life stories a day are told across a grubby wooden counter in wrinkled dollar bills.
But now the block that Fred Dingbat loved the most—remember Fred?—that between Sixth and Fifth Avenues. On the left, until it went bust, Stern's mighty department store, conservatory of the myriad artifacts of our busy time. And on the right, the main branch of the New York Public Library, and Bryant Park, and ... the Bryant Park Comfort Station. For here was man in sum and essence, in his every facet. On the left, in the store that was and the stores that still struggle on, man the Builder, man the Acquisitor. On the right, in the Public Library, the treasure-house of thought, of philosophy, and of story (never denigrate it), was man the Divine, reaching out for knowledge and truth and wisdom and understanding and meaning and that Divine spark which gives to man his touch of the Divine. And in Bryant Park, man the Agrarian, man the Cultivator. And in the Comfort Station, the admission that man is still human, still man the Animal.
In the center of the center of the center of the world, man was still not entirely his own noble creation.
From here, the blocks accelerated. Madison, Park, Lexington, Third—nobody seems to know what happened to Fourth—and before Second Avenue was reached, the captains of industry had been tolled in their upthrust quarries. The Lincoln Building, the Chanin Building, the Socony Mobil Building, the Chrysler Building and Chrysler Building East, the Lorillard Building, and the Daily News Building. And in its midst, Grand Central Station, crossroads of a million private lives, tangential thread of so many tangled tales it would take one hell of a tale untangler to untangle them all. Or even half. And beside it, the Commodore Hotel, with even more carryings-on, as well as the Dartmouth College Club.
And then, finally, the final block to the United Nations Building, haven of peace, where men of a hundred nationalities walk the corridors, worrying about their private problems.
But is this all? It is not. On the return trip, / backwards.
And every time, every successful journey from East River to Hudson River, or from Hudson River to East River, there at the center of it all was the Bryant Park Comfort Station, a present comfort in time of need. Men only, like McSorley's.
Fred grinned at the Comfort Station through the rain drenching an already-drenched city, and told himself it was all right. He would think of Korea no more today. Or so he thought.CHAPTER 2
Mo mowgli was late again.
Why was it, he thought, standing there in the rain pouring down on him from the sky, which was above the city, that he couldn't seem to get to work on time anymore? Was it that he had lost that finely honed sense of purpose, almost of passion, which had ever inspired him to do his duty at whatever the task life had put before him? Was that it? Was it?
It was true his dreams of responsibility had not come true, regardless of the many correspondence courses he had taken. He had learned to be a detective through the mails, and still possessed the handcuffs, though he couldn't seem to find the key anymore. He had studied hotel management by mail, had boned up in the same postal manner on air traffic controlling, library science, brain surgery, interior decoration, and post office operations. In the privacy of his own home he still occasionally walked around with his earphones on, the last legacy of his radio broadcaster course, now and again tripping over the trailing wire and catapulting into some portion of his meager furnishings. But with all of that preparation, all of that theoretical expertise, and with a soul more than willing to face the constant piling-up of crises and emergencies he knew faced those in positions of responsibility—who had troubles enough at home—where had life chosen to place him in the greater scheme of things?
He was the custodian of the Bryant Park Comfort Station.
Ah, well, he thought, as he hunched his shoulders against the rain drenching an already-drenched city, here too there was executive responsibility of a sort. For wasn't the Bryant Park Comfort Station the very center of Manhattan, the crossroads of a million private lives, most of them troubled? It was.
So why couldn't he get to work on time? It was a problem.
Looking now to his left along West 42nd Street, Mo saw at last the Crosstown bus coming his way. He would be no more than five or ten minutes late today: not good, but better than his recent average.
Perhaps if he lived closer to midtown it would be easier to get to work on time, but somehow Mo couldn't bring himself to move out of the little apartment uptown, the meagerly furnished three rooms in which he lived alone, except for his correspondence courses and a cat called Bitsy, who occasionally came in from her usual haunt on the fire escape to eat roaches and condescend to join Mo in a saucer of milk. So it was that every morning he took a bus down Ninth Avenue to West 42nd Street, where he transferred to the Crosstown bus for the straight run to the Comfort Station. Usually arriving late.
It didn't always matter if he was late. Most of the time there was no one around at seven in the morning anyway, no one to care if the Comfort Station was open or closed. But every once in a while Mo would alight late from the Crosstown bus to find some poor wayfarer hopping up and down on the sidewalk out front, his agony mirrored in his expression, which was agonized. At those moments of emergency and crisis, Mo always acted with instinctive speed and precision, unlocking the door, switching on the lights, assuring himself there was sufficient paper in the stalls, and at the same time feeling deep inside the gnawing knowledge of his own failure, his own inattention. He should have been here on time; it was his fault and no one else's that the poor wayfarer had been reduced to hopping up and down on the sidewalk for ten minutes or fifteen minutes or even twenty minutes. At such times, Mo promised himself never to be late again, but his resolution never seemed to last very long: the next day, or the day after that, he would be late again.
As he was this morning. It was already past seven, and he was still at Ninth Avenue, blocks from his assigned post. But here, in any event, was the bus. It pulled to a stop, the bifurcated door opened, and Mo stepped aboard, grateful to be out of the pouring rain, drenching an already-drenched city.
"Hello, Mo." It was Fred Dingbat, a driver Mo knew well.
"Hello, Fred," Mo riposted, dropping a token into the box. Looking down the long length of the interior of the bus, Mo saw that there were no other passengers, a not infrequent occurrence at this hour of a Tuesday morning—or even a Wednesday morning, actually— particularly when it was raining, which it was doing now.
Mo sat in the first seat on the right side, where he faced the driver and could talk to him even while the vehicle was in motion. Against the rules, of course, but the bus company generally blinked at such bending of the regulations. Bus drivers were human, as the company understood, and liked to have some company while driving the bus. A little harmless fraternization with the passengers was considered all right, so long as it didn't become too blatant or interfere with the driver's performance of his function. He was, after all (the driver), in command of two point four tons of green machinery, rolling through the mighty city, surrounded by cars, cabs, trucks, pedestrians, bicycles, mounted policemen, wheelchairs, and the Cattleman Restaurant's stagecoach: he had to be cool and calm at all times, in control of both himself and the juggernaut he was driving.
Excerpted from Comfort Station by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1973 J. Morgan Cunningham. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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