THE OLDTIMER “God bless you,” the old man said, “God bless you,” and he wiped the tears from his eyes. The tears weren’t motivated by emotion, however. They were caused by the level of his intoxication.
He had immigrated to America from Croatia in 1959, but his accent was still heavy and evident in his every word. He raised his glass to click against mine. He was very happy with me. I was the guy who didn’t think he looked his age, which was seventy-one. And he didn’t look his age. He had more hair than I do, and most of it was still black. For almost forty years, he had worked as a longshoreman, loading crates on the docks of Manhattan and Brooklyn every day. Seven years ago, he retired. “My mind does not want to retire,” he admitted, “but my body can tolerate work no more.”
“How old are you?” he asked me.
“God bless you,” he said, raising his glass. “My age is very different,” he continued,” I cross myself every morning,” and he indicated the gesture. “Everyday is lucky. Every day is not what to be expected. For you, they are expected. But not so with me. You understand?” He smiled easily. There was something very familiar about him. He was one of those people whose face immediately compels you to like them. I had never really understood what people meant when they described someone’s face as “honest”. Now, I did. As he tried for the third time to light his cigarette, I finally realized why he seemed familiar: He looked like Robert Mitchum.
“What was it like in New York in 1959?” I asked.
“Aah!” he smiled, slapping the table, “Very different! In 1959, a subway token was only fifteen cents. A pack of cigarettes was twenty-five cents.”
We were at Rudy’s on 44th street. I’d been waiting for a friend when I fell into conversation with the Croatian immigrant. When my friend finally arrived, I went to shake the old man’s hand and noticed for the first time that it had been badly crushed. There was nothing left but his middle finger.