I never found out why James Leightnin left the Bowery. He’d been on the bum in New York for a couple of years. But now he was back in Jersey City, back home, sitting on the steps outside the Tunnel Bar. While waiting for the Welfare Inspector, James watched the traffic flow out of the Holland Tunnel and then race away.
James wore a castoff dress suit, his liquor-soaked wasted appearance making a mockery of the clothing. Despite the heat of the July late morning, he had on a long-sleeve shirt. But, a jacket was too much for even the thin blood of a chronic alcoholic. That garment lay carefully folded over the back of a chair next to the pay phone, off to the side of the bar. The elbows of fragile arms set against knobby knees. Tired eyes of a strange empty intensity — like those of something in a taxidermist’s studio – were set over a fine, almost delicate, nose. A full head of white hair topped a face that glowed as red as the sun setting on the polluted horizon.
Since he was homeless, James’s plan was to gesture towards the several stories of empty apartments over the tavern when the welfare inspector asked for the address of a residence. I was certain that this ruse wasn’t even worth trying, that the social worker was going to demand to see the room. I was wrong. As soon as James began to raise his arm, the inspector quickly wrote 605 Henderson Street on the appropriate line of the form. An emergency check was immediately forthcoming to tide James over until Social Security processed the change of address for his disability check. The Tunnel Bar had another customer.
Not even considering the time on the Bowery (to the wino what Broadway is to the actor), James Leightnin was a different grade altogether from the rest of the run of the gin mill crowd. By just glancing at his rap sheet, with charges like threatening to blow up the U.N, breaking into a bank, and threatening to assassinate the President, you’d think that Leightnin was Jersey City’s answer to a comic book bad guy. After a closer look you’d see that he also had been arrested for trying to jump off of the George Washington Bridge. And, when in prison (for the bank burglary), he’d gotten a full course of electric shock treatments. James Leightnin wasn’t a big time criminal; he was a major league loser.
James’s old neighborhood in Downtown Jersey City treated him well. As many of the locals knew him since childhood, they made certain that he got something to eat every day. James used the sink in the saloon restroom to wash. Bar patrons regularly dropped off clothing for him. Just as the nights began to turn cold in the fall, one particularly kind soul gave James a very good wool coat and a matching suit. Seated by the phone (which he now regularly answered, having assumed the imaginary job of bar receptionist), a few pounds heavier than when he had first arrived, and no longer weather-beaten, James might pass for something like settled and prosperous.
– – –
One busy day, a tall, well-dressed African-American entered the bar carrying a large briefcase. He was an older gent with a very light complexion. Smiling, he approached the bartender, Sal Jr., who was handling a line of customers for package good (carry-out) beer and liquor orders. The visitor announced that he was a salesman for a calendar company.
“Calendars are a great way to advertise!”
“Well, yeah, but you know we just took the place over last May. And summer was slow. Things are a little tight right now. We’re going to have to take a pass this time ‘roun’. Maybe next year. Thanks for stopping by.”
The bartender put a six-pack in a bag, got paid the couple of dollars and change, and then turned and walked six, eight feet away to the cash register. After ringing up the sale, he turned and walked back towards the line of waiting customers. Sal Jr. expected to see the salesman making his way towards the door. Instead, the guy was arranging sample calendars on the bar.
Displaying an item with a picture of a covered bridge, “Calendars are a great way to show your customers that you appreciate them!”
“Yeah, but this like ain’t a neighborhood bar. Our customers are mostly transit. They stop here ‘cause they happen to be workin’ near by. They sure as hell ain’t gonna wanna carry anythin’ back to the job or home to let on that they was hangin’ out at a bar.”
Now, Sal Jr. put a half pint of Seagram 7 in a small bag. The customer handed the bartender a twenty-dollar bill. He turned and walked to the cash register. Sal Jr. put the bill on the machine’s small counter and pressed three keys to set the price. Then he hit a handle to record the sale. The register rang and the drawer slid open. The bartender made change and shut the drawer. Turning, he was disappointed – but this time not surprised – to see that the calendar salesman was still standing there.
As Sal Jr. went to hand the customer his change, the calendar salesman stepped up to the bartender and stuck one of the samples right in front of his face.
“This is our top of the line. It’s got a thermometer and a different picture for each month!”
Startled by the sudden movement, Sal Jr. dropped the change. The bills landed on the bar, but the change clattered off in every direction.
“OK. THAT DOES IT! I tried to tell ya ‘No’ in a nice way, but’cha din’t want to hear it. So’s now’s I’m askin’ ya to get out.”
“I’M NOT LEAVING!”
“What’cha mean y’ain’t leavin?”
“I made a sale here every year for the last ten years. You’re not going to spoil my winning streak!”
Sal Jr. produced a stick from behind the bar and hit the top counter.
“Listen and listen good you silly sonuvabitch. I already asked ya to leave. NOW I’M TELLIN’ YA T’ GET OUT!”
The calendar salesman grabbed his hat, his samples, and his case. He made a few quick steps for the door. Hesitating for a moment, he looked back. The sight of the glaring, still fuming Sal Jr., propelled the calendar salesman the remaining distance and then out the door.
– – –
The Friday after Thanksgiving the UPS delivery man lugged a big box in the door. Sal Jr. walked over to him.
“Who’s that from?”
“Uh, it’s not for you. Is there a James Leightnin here?”
“Sign right here please.”
The UPS man heaved the big box up on to the bar. James Leightnin took a little pen knife out of his pocket and cut the tape.
“Here you go, Sal. Merry Christmas!”
The box was filled with calendars. Sal Jr. picked one up and looked at it closely. It sported a small thermometer. There was a different picture for each month. The most expensive model.
“James, ya shouldn’t have done this. It must have cost a fortune.”
“Well, I just got my check . . .and you and your father were so good to me . . . And so’s I did it! There’s just one thing that I wanted t’ ask.”
“Can I hand them out to the people?”
Sal Jr. kept the big box behind the bar on top of some cases of liquor. Several times a day he’d hand a dozen or so to James to distribute.
“Merry Christmas! This is from Sal and his father. Here’s one for your brother-in-law, too!”
A couple of days after Christmas, in his sleep, James Leightnin suffered a massive hemorrhage. He never woke up again.
A couple of days after New Years, Sal Sr. got a bill in the mail from the calendar company.
“Ignore it. James Leightnin told me he paid for that”
The bills kept coming. Eventually the statement was stamped in red: FINAL NOTICE.
Sometime that May, the calendar salesman burst into the bar.
“I’m owed $212.38! I’m not leaving without it! EVERY DOLLAR AND EVERY CENT!”
“But I was told that everything was taken’ care ov?”
”Hell no! Nothing’s been paid.”
“Do you have anytin’ wit a signature on it?”
“I certainly do!”
The calendar salesman produced a document. Signed in big bold letters true to the spirit of John Hancock was the name: James Leightnin.
“When was this order placed?”
“Right after you asked me to leave . . .”
“Y’ mean right after I threatened t’ throw y’out?”
“Right after you asked me to leave, the gentleman seated by the phone followed me out. He said, ‘Ignore that kid. He thinks that he’s the boss or something. I’m the owner. Let me see what you got.’”
Sal Jr. began to laugh.
“Y’ been beat three times. That guy got no connection with the joint. He was a wino. An’ – to top it off – he’s dead.”
First, all blood drained from the face of the calendar salesman. Then, he turned bright red.
“I’ll be back! I’ll be back! I’m coming back with the police. I’m coming back with the Sheriff!”
“Come back with whoever ya want. But for nows, GET OUT!”
The calendar company stopped sending bills.