The slow rain had been drizzling down for three days. The gray sky and the decrepit old buildings snuggled together, each matching the other shade for shade of the same weary color. A young sailor in a wet summer uniform shuffled along the sidewalk, stopping now and then in a deserted doorway. But they offered little and with a tired restlessness, he moved on.
“Only the second day of a week-end leave and after last night I’m too broke to pay for a room or buy a raincoat. Nobody goes back to the ship halfway through a leave, so I’ll just walk. Maybe something will show up. Somehow, when I keep moving it doesn’t seem quite as cold. There’s a rescue mission in the last block, but that’s for drunks…”
The sidewalk was littered with the usual debris that gathers in neglected downtown areas and after being wafted by capricious winds from doorway to gutter to sidewalk, is pounded by the restless feet of the derelicts of society who haunt these areas. To a head bowed with shame and remorse, these bits of litter pass by in a monotonous, never-ending symbol of departed usefulness: a candy wrapper, a torn tract, a flattened wad of gum, a broken pencil, a month-old newspaper. All past usefulness. All dismal. All dead.
“This headache isn’t the worst thing—it’s this…this…feeling way down that makes things so miserable.” Even in his own mind he suppressed the word “guilt” although he knew it to be the most accurate description of his feelings.
For a minute, Sid Van Bloom imagined himself as a prodigal son and toyed with the idea of calling his folks by long distance phone. But, somehow, it never jelled. The thought of his father brought to mind the “farewell sermon” as he had dubbed the anticipated “man to man” talk he had had with his father the night before he left for the navy. “Son, you are going to see things and meet people that today you’d say simply don’t exist. People of the world live differently, Sid, and I want you to be careful. Stay away from the beer gardens and girls who smoke and don’t forget you’re supposed to be a Christian.”
The “sermon” had been short, unorganized and poorly received by the audience of one. “Aw lay off it, will you, Dad? You brought me up right. I’ve gone through catechism, I sang in the choir, I’ve gone to Youth Fellowship meetings since I was fourteen. Just don’t sweat it, huh? I know things are going to be different, but I’ll take care of myself.”
He walked past a gray stone church and wondered how he could ever face his fellow church members again. He who had sung so piously in the choir was now nursing a hangover in a skid row area. On his first leave home, he had substituted for an absent Sunday School teacher and had basked in the wide-eyed hero worship of the youngsters who enjoyed the novelty of a Sailor-Sunday-School-Teacher. How could he face those youngsters again? The memory of those trusting up-turned faces seared like a firebrand into his reeling mind.
The rain freshened and snapped short the reverie. Sid found himself in a neighborhood made up of crumbling foundations, bits of building materials and tall stately elm trees. Obviously, a highway was to be built through this old neighborhood and although the houses had been removed, the trees remained like tall, proud giants, quite unconcerned by the petty hurly-burly of the several generations who scurried about under their branches—working, crying, struggling and dying. All important, but futile and temporal. The trees nodded easily in the light night breeze as if disdainful of all they surveyed.
At another time, Sid would have enjoyed sitting against one of these elms and would have savored the illusion of loneliness created by a long, almost sinister branches as they wafted themselves over the wreckage below. But this time the loneliness was more than illusionary; it was real. And it intensified by the memory of a nineteen year old fool who had sneered at his father’s naïve, but farewell admonitions.
“When the other guys want to do something that you know is wrong don’t be afraid to tell them ‘no’,” his father had said. Sid remembered nodding in bored acquiescence.
But once on board ship it hadn’t been that easy. Rushing to be off the ship for leave, but unfamiliar with the town and eager to be one of the crowd, he had allowed himself to be intrigued with the promises of the more seasoned crew members. “We’ll take you out and show you stuff you never saw in Sunday School,” one had bragged. “Yeah man, tonight’s the night we introduce Dutch to the big city”; bright lights, hot music, plush night spots and pretty girls. The promised panorama had raced before his mind, sped on by curiosity and anticipation. Now it dragged past, indefinite and fuzzy in the mind of a lonely, heavy-hearted sailor who was sitting in the rain under a dripping elm tree in a destroyed neighborhood. The bright lights had glared, the music blared, the drinks produced nausea and the pretty girls were fiction. Everything was fake, tinsel, cheap and transient. Like his “friends” who had promised the night of fun. Where were they?
Sid rubbed his hands over his eyes as if to clear his mind. He couldn’t remember the events of the evening. Which had he lost first, his friends or his money? He suspected they had disappeared simultaneously.
Friends gone, money gone, self-respect gone, wet, cold, lonely, dejected—like being in a deep crevice with no way out and the walls keep pressing together closer and closer until the will to live is gone while the actuality of life remains momentarily.
“The river—that’s the answer—I can be there in ten minutes and in eleven minutes I’ll be nothing but 97 cents worth of miscellaneous chemicals bobbing into oblivion with no remorse, no memories, no grinding feeling of shame.”
The price he was about to pay for his relief made the freedom bitter-sweet and he found himself hurrying towards the river in a panic like one rushing to complete a task in which he has little confidence, yet feels compelled to perform. “Gotta hurry—only nine minutes left.”
The rescue mission he had noticed earlier appeared across the street. A flickering neon sign through the misty rain asked those who passed by “Are You Ready?” A collection of cast-off kitchen chairs, forced into an uneasy uniformity by a coat of yellow enamel dominated the interior and were occupied by two dozen skid row habitués. A large Bible lay open in the window, flanked on either side by posters announcing a coming revival. A bent man wearing an out-of-style suit coat over a heavy knit sweater stood at the front door passing out tracts with a toothy smile.
“Even got the assistant barker at the gate” thought Sid, reflecting Citadel City’s general opinion that rescue missions and carnivals both make good entertainment, but in the comparison, the missions come in second. “Step right up folks, Salvation is just a prayer away.” Cynicism and imagination are dangerous when combined, but this time the combination served to convince Sid that it might be worth a minute or two to “watch the show.” “Once I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead a long time. Ain’t that right?” he asked a bus patron who waited nearby but moved away quickly when Sid appeared to want conversation.
His eyes seemed to lose their focus momentarily and Sid sat down on the step of a bank in order to get things lined up again.
“That head barker over yonder must be at least a hundred pounds overweight,” he told his audience which consisted of a parking meter and a telephone booth. “Never smoke, never drink, no siree, but eat like hogs. That’s funnymentalist for ya.” His audience remained quiet, so the speaker continued, “But that’s no worry of mine ‘cause in five minutes…kaput, alles kaput.”
His exposition was cut short by the hopeless attempts of the mission superintendent (who apparently had a tin ear) in leading the motley group of men in singing. Each man chose his own pitch and tempo and eager to impress the mission management with his zeal, (it’s raining outside) tried to pull the others along. The monotones outshouted the rest.
“Typical,” sneered Sid, “dinky shallow doctrine yet as happy as kids about the whole thing. But what a mess they’re making of that song. Why don’t they use the piano; it’s sitting right there! The least Ole Fatty could do, would be to give them the pitch. Probably just too plain stupid.
“Just once, just once, I’d like to tell a bunch of nuts like that what they really are.” He consulted his watch, but couldn’t focus on the dial. “Must have about four minutes left, but the bridge is only a block away. Better hurry!”
“Stop this hollerin’ and screaming,” Sid heard himself yell as he plowed through the door of the mission. “You guys sound like a bunch of sick dogs bellerin’ at the moon. If you’re gonna sing good songs, then sing ‘em right”
“Who made you a preacher, swabby,” a voice challenged from the back of the room, “the booze?”
“Shut up! Now listen you bunch of winoes and you too, Chubby,” he said turning to the leader.
“The name is Art, Brother Art.”
“Okay, chubby Brother Art, I’ve got just three more minutes to live and if it’s the last thing I do, I’m gonna teach you guys how to sing that song you were just in the process of killing. Now listen! ‘Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory’ ain’t such a hot song as songs go, but it’ll do for your first singing lesson. Now, I’m going to play the first line of that song and when I nod my head like this,” and he demonstrated emphatically, “you all start singing and loud. If I see anybody not singing it’ll go hard on him.”
He snatched a book from a scared little man in the front row and spun towards the piano.
What was this crazy situation he got himself into? The fog had cleared away a bit, but he remembered his actions clearly. Sitting at the piano was at the same time familiar and strange. As a youngster he had agonized his way through three years of scales and arpeggios but hadn’t touched a piano since his enlistment. About a third of the ivories were missing and several dropped too far down to play. It reminded Sid of a piano in the basement recreation room of a friend of his. The youth group had met there for refreshments after a skating party and he had accompanied an impromptu quartet. The thought of the uninhibited singing and playing that night made the present tense situation a study in contrast, not similarities. Yet the warm glow of playing for the singing that night refused to leave his mind.
He braced the hymnbook between two others and slammed out the first line of the song, then in response to his nod the room erupted with a surprisingly coordinated sound as the twenty-some derelicts tried their best to humor one who had added spice to an otherwise dull meeting.
It was easier going by the time they came to the chorus and the pent-up agonies which had been building up during the evening found release in the feverish working of his fingers as they scrambled to find their own way up and down the keyboard.
“Hallelujah” yelled a man near the back when the song had ended. “We ain’t sung like that for a month. Play the second verse, Sailor Boy!”
Carried along in the enthusiasm he had strangely created, Sid played the song through again and was surprised to find himself humming along.
But bitterness leaves hard and when the mission superintendent suggested another number, Sid whirled at him, “You shut up, fat boy, this is my show. Your clue to come back on stage comes when I jump off that bridge in exactly one minute.”
“Yeah, so what!”
“So nothing, but we haven’t been able to get a pianist to come down here for weeks and the men would sure appreciate another song or two. What have you got to lose, this close to the end?”
Sid studied the man for several long seconds. He had taken off the bulky tweed sports jacket he had been wearing and Sid saw that he was of a stocky build, plenty husky and muscular, yet not overweight. His hands were calloused and belonged to someone who knew common labor. His eyes were narrowing as he waited for an answer.
“Oh, all right, one more, but make it a good one.”
Sid fanned the pages to the requested number and then slammed the book shut. “That’s trash. I ain’t gonna play it.”
“What’s wrong with ‘Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight’, Mr. Sailor Boy with the guilty conscience?” asked Art.
“It’s nothing but emotionalism; that’s what’s wrong with it,” snapped Sid with the conviction that the mere accusation would drown any possible opposition. But it didn’t.
“So emotionalism is what’s wrong with it, my wandering Sailor Boy; and Who, pray tell, made your emotions and why?”
Sid was over his head. The fog in his mind and the unexpected defense of something he had been taught to despise combined to leave him without an answer.
“I’ll tell you why you got emotions; it’s so that we show what’s inside us, ‘specially over against God. It’s emotions that make us feel guilty-like and talk about jumping off bridges.”
Sid cringed. The memory of what he had planned came back as if out of another world, but it came back strong and bitter.
“It’s emotions that make us mad about lousy singing and go barging into a meeting like you did a few minutes ago. So don’t sell emotions short, fella. God used ‘em to bring you in here tonight. And not just to give you a place out of the rain either, but to give you something to do in His kingdom, which always makes a guy feel better.”
Sid had turned towards the leader and with one hand on the rear edge of the bench, continued to stare at the painted floor. He wanted to answer, but couldn’t. It was easier to say nothing than to admit that there could be more truth in what he was being told by this husky preacher than in his own actions. By this time Art had walked to him and placed his hand on Sid’s shoulder.
“Okay, I’ll play it,” he said quietly.
“Please don’t. It’s a lousy song, but tonight it filled a very good purpose.”
Sid didn’t remember much about the remainder of the service except that he looked forward to the occasional song which punctuated the mission superintendent’s speech. Each time he stepped forward to the piano, he felt a sense of purpose he had never experienced before. The little mission needed help that night and he knew he had been led to furnish the help. And yet, he couldn’t help but wonder who had received the most help, the men or he himself. In his own mind the answer was obvious.
“I don’t see how I could have gone so far off beam,” Sid told Art after the meeting as they sat around an oilcloth covered table and drank strong black coffee. “I have good parents, who brought me up with a strong sense of right and wrong. I’ve gone to church all my life. I guess I’m just not as strong as I thought I was.”
“That’s just the trouble, we all think we have a certain amount of resistance to sin and it seems as if we do, as long as there’s no temptation around. But just as soon as things get a little rough our imaginary strength lets us fall flat on our faces. Right?”
“Right. But I came storming in here, messing things up and although I can’t remember anything of our lesson, I began to feel better when I realized that I could be of some use here and I began to take a real interest in the singing.
“I don’t want to sound preachy, Sid, but take it from this part-time brick layer and part-time preacher, there’s spiritual therapy in helping others. End of sermon. Now scram upstairs. Brother George has some dry clothes and a bed set aside for you. Says he’ll do anything legal to keep a piano player from catching pneumonia.”