James Leightnin stumbled out of the restroom of the Tunnel Bar. All of a sudden, jumping right up out of the front page of a newspaper tossed on top of some boxes of beer, it hit him in the head again: LBJ Visits NYC!
Every newspaper, every TV set, every radio, everywhere it was the same thing. No matter how much Leightnin drank, day and night it followed him. Once Nixon got in the White House, James figured that he’d never have to hear about Lyndon Baines Johnson again. But, no, there wasn’t never going to be no end to Johnson this, Johnson that.
LBJ got away with murdering Kennedy. And here Johnson was in New York — just across the river — rubbing all of Jersey City’s nose in it; rubbing his nose in it. The nogood sonuvabitch killed Kennedy, an Irishman. And all the papers and everyone on the radio and TV kept talking Johnson up like he was somesorta ball player or astronaut or something.
That did it. James Leightnin wasn’t gonna take no more. He was gonna DO something.
Picking up the paper, because of his nearsighted eyes, Leightnin first tried holding it out at arm’s length. That didn’t work. With the small print and the low lights of the saloon, he couldn’t make out the words; everything was a blur. But, next to the pay phone was the jute box. The jute box lit up. James Leightnin shuffled the twelve, fifteen feet or so over to the case with the records inside and placed the newspaper on the front glass. Now he could make out the article and find out the name of the hotel where Johnson was staying.
Carefully walking the few steps over to the bar, “Johnny, I needs me a pen.”
“What ever do YOU need a pen for?”
“I’s gots to make me a phone call.”
“OK. Here you go.”
Next to the phone was a chair. James Leightnin pulled it in front of the phone. He dialed the telephone number for New York City information. He then sat down, ready to write on the paper on the jute box.
“I needs the number for the Biltmore Hotel. . . . Which number? The number you calls to talk to somebody stayin’ there.
With a very shaky hand, James Leightnin scrawled large digits on the newspaper. He was going to need change for the call. James dug the change out of his pocket and counted it: $1.79.
Taking the two dollar bills out of his other pocket, “Johnny, I needs change.”
“Y’er givin’ me two dollars. You only wants change for one, dont’cha?”
“Nah, I needs the change for me phone call.”
“Who’s you callin’ wit two dollars, the President?”
“Nah, I don’t wanna talk wit’ Nixon. I’m callin’ Johnson to tell him that I’s ain’t gonna let him get away with killin’ an Irishman.”
The whole tavern began to laugh. With a big grin on his face, Johnny the bartender gave Leightnin the two dollars in change.
Going back to the phone, James Leightnin scrutinized the numbers on the paper and dialed the phone. After the message came on telling him the amount due, he slowly put the coins in the pay phone. Sitting down, Leightnin waited for the hotel to answer.
“Biltmore New York. Your party please.”
“I’s wants to speak a word with Johnson. LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON!”
“Uh, I’m sorry. But, Frmr. President Johnson presently is not available. Would you like to leave a message?”
“Damn right I wants to leave a message! My name is James O’Leitnin and I’m an Irishman. Johnson killed an Irishman and I for one ain’t gonna let’m get away with it. And you’s can tell him that, . . .”
“Uh, it looks like the Frmr. President just arrived. Please hold.”
All worked up, James Leightnin, at first, was happy for the chance to yell at LBJ. But, after a minute or so of dead silence on the line, Leightnin realized the something was amiss. James got up from the chair and hung up the phone. Then, he very deliberately walked to the door.
All the tavern customers again began to laugh.
One of the regulars yelled out, “Hey James! Is you headin’ to Park Avenue to give LBJ a piece of your mind, or what?” Everybody laughed.
James Leightnin didn’t turn around to answer. He just walked out the door, taking care to get down the two steps without falling.
– – –
Salvatore, Sr. hadn’t yet bought the Tunnel Bar. At this time he owned another tavern one block away at the corner of 15th and Grove. This place during the day pretty much strictly catered to workers from the Lackawanna Warehouse up the block. There was a big rush early in the morning with the guys heading in to work, a lunchtime crowd, and people hanging out after work. But, right now, around 10AM it was always quiet. Sal was shaving with an electric razor. He’d step into the bathroom to look in the mirror and step out — as far as the cord allowed — to see if anybody was coming into the bar.
Suddenly, a half-dozen or so unmarked cars stopped in the street in front of the tavern. Burly guys, ignoring the honking horns of the blocked traffic, jack-in-the-boxed out of the vehicles and sprinted into the saloon, filling the place. The men all wore guns in holsters, Western style, strapped to their hips. Plus, they also had night sticks, tethers on the end of poles, shot guns, tear gas cannisters, and karate sticks. One carried a big net. Another held a straight jacket.
As the only occupant of the bar was a very startled Sal, Sr. (still holding the buzzing electric razor), for a second or two the crowd of federal agents didn’t know what to do.
One of the agents barked, “Where’s the guy who made the phone call?”
“What phone call? Nobody’s been on the phone all day.”
“Don’t try gettin’ clever. This ain’t no joke. Someone called from here threatnin’ to kill the President. Who was it? Where is he?”
“I got no idea what’cha talkin’ about. The phone ain’t been used at all today. And plus the place has been empty for over an hour with just me in it.”
Confused, the entire detail ran back out to the cars. They started going through notes, teletype printouts, and maps. They looked at the street sign. It was the wrong address! They could see a bar on another corner just a block up. The whole group headed for the Tunnel Bar. Halfway up 15th street they trudged past a rather woebegone James Leightnin slowly walking in the opposite direction.
Sal, Sr. still didn’t know what to make of the situation. Nobody was by the phone all morning. Yet, the gun-toting crew obviously was ready for serious action.
Then James Leightnin came in the door. James Leightnin who had climbed up the girders of the George Washington Bridge saying that he was going to jump. James Leightnin who did hard time for trying to break into a bank. James Leightnin who got electric shock treatments for throwing a food tray at a guard. Sal, Sr. now knew who the federal agents were looking for.
“JAMES! GET OUT OF HERE!”
James Leightnin pretty much guessed by now that it was too late. In his fried-synapse, alcohol-soaked haze the only thing he could think of doing was to go back to the Tunnel Bar.
– – –
Everybody was laughing again up at the Tunnel Bar. The federal agents weren’t happy, but kept quiet.
“Threatening to kill the President! WhoaHoa! James Leightnin done and went an’ done it this time! That’s who ye’r lookin’ for. That’s who was making the call. He’s a little white-haired old boozehound. You musta gone right past him on the way up here!”
The agents ran back out the door. James was yo-yoing up 15th street heading in their direction! They started running towards him.
Seeing a football team out of a nightmare coming right at him, James did an about-face, trying none too successfully to get away. A net was all around him. Several agents tackled him from behind. Extracted from the net, next came the familiar embrace of the straight jacket, followed by leg shackles. One guy grabbed his legs, another the collar in back of the straight jacket. James looked down at the sidewalk as he was carried off and then tossed in the back seat of one of the cars.