BENNY had his first heart attack in the saloon. Another porter, coming in late, found him wrapped around a case of ale he had carried up from the cellar. The porter called the police, and the police took Benny to Bellevue. I didn’t visit him in the hospital — he was just another porter to me then — but I sent down money, and in keeping with the image the staff has of me, I sent a bottle.
He had a second attack in his room six months later. He hung out around Eighth Avenue and Twenty-ninth Street and had a room somewhere near there. This time his landlady called the police, and the police took Benny not to Bellevue but to the nearest hospital, the French Hospital on Twenty-ninth Street. We were all alarmed when he was missing for several days for the obvious reason that the last time he had been missing for several days he had had a heart attack. I called Bellevue a couple of times to ask for him, and Jimmy Gibbs, the head porter, drove down to Eighth and Twenty-ninth to nose around among the drifters and ask for Benny. Neither of us had any luck. In my case it was because Benny simply wasn’t in Bellevue. Jimmy got no information out of the bums because he is a handsome and intelligent Negro, which to a bum means Cop. Jimmy and I were mulling the next step one morning when we were visited by a solemn fat man with a small looseleaf notebook like insurance agents carried in the Depression, and the demeanor of a weeper.
If Jimmy looked like a cop to the bums, this guy looked like a cop to me. I led him to a back booth and we sat. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out he was from the City Department of Labor, which was a relief, for they are cheaper than cops. “This is Gogarty’s Restaurant, Inc.,” he said.
He opened his looseleaf book and flopped to a page, heavy as shirt cardboard, that was headed Walsh, Benjamin. “You have an employee here named Benjamin Walsh?”
“Yes. Would you like coffee or something?”
“No, thanks. I had breakfast already. How long has Walsh been employed here?”
“Two years,” I said, multiplying by two, a habit I developed giving credit references for bartenders.
“Is he still employed by you?”
“Well, I guess so. If he shows up he’s got a job. He disappeared a couple of days ago and we haven’t heard from him since and don’t know how to get in touch —”
“He is in French Hospital,” the Labor man said. “He suffered a coronary attack last Tuesday, his second in six months. What” — he gave me a weepy look at man’s inhumanity to man — “were his duties here?”
“Damn few,” I said, defensive and annoyed at being put on the defensive. “Since his first attack his duties here have been to arrive at four thirty or so, when the bartenders leave, and stay put until eight, when the working porters arrive.”
He didn’t believe me. “You mean to tell me he does no work at all. No sweeping, no dishes —”
“Nothing. He’s on orders to do nothing. Just sit here and keep warm.” That wasn’t true, but I was getting a little sore.
“And for that you pay him a full porter’s wage,” the Labor man stated calmly, not believing a word of it.
The answer was, Of course not, we give him half pay. “We most certainly do,” I said.
“May I see your workbook?” he said, dismissing me and the subject at once. The workbook is a piece of rude fiction that restaurant owners are compelled by law to keep on the premises and up to date at all times.
I got up and walked behind the bar. Jimmy Gibbs looked at me the way saloon people look at one another when the police drop by for a conference. “He’s from Labor,” I said. “He tells me old brother Benny is still with us. He had another attack, all right, but he’s in a West Side hospital, which is why we couldn’t find him.” I rummaged in a drawer full of neckties and old register tapes and bad checks for the book.
“Can’t kill old Benny,” Jimmy said, and flashed that bright, catchy Negro laughter. “Can’t get rid of a good man that easy.”
“He’ll be back and bitching in a week, Jimmy,” I said, and Jimmy and I laughed.
It is important now to speak only for myself and not for jimmy, who is a nicer guy than I am. I had hoped Benny was dead. I had called Bellevue not to find Benny alive but to ensure him a decent burial. That’s not very nice, and I wouldn’t say it in public except that I was not alone in the wish, Benny wanted the second attack to be his last, too.
WALSH was not Benny’s name. I’d use his straight name, but he is still alive, and all kinds of government agencies would harass him. Between his attacks, because he had little to do but talk, I learned a lot about him. Benny had never paid a tax in his life; he had long ago lost his social security card and forgotten the number, giving his employers a nine-digit number that pleased him; he had never married or voted, never been in the service or registered for the draft. He had never commuted, whelped, sunbathed, conversed, golfed, tipped, or quarreled. He had never owned anything but the clothes on his back, and those I gave him. The only permanent address he might ever have had was jail, and I’m guessing at that. (It’s a good guess. His arms were littered with pale monochrome homemade tattoos, jailhouse tattoos that usually mean a six-month stretch. It takes six months of doing absolutely nothing to get sufficiently bored to submit to an amateur tattoo man.) I discovered Benny’s straight name in some clippings he brought me from Ring magazine. There was no electric confrontation as with a criminal. I pointed to the name and said “This you?” and he said “Yah.” He hadn’t changed his name to hide anything, he had just let go of it. Benny was the anticitizen needed to balance out some total citizen in an ordered physical universe. So I’ll call him Walsh.
About the clippings from Ring: one morning, say about six, Benny joined a discussion on boxers that was going on among the drunken lot of us who had closed Gogarty’s at four. He quickly replaced me as resident expert, historian, and arbiter, and nobody likes that, particularly at six in the morning. I challenged his credentials.
“Forty-seven fights,” Benny said. “Forty-two wins and a draw.”
I was not overwhelmed. In the first place, he would have been fighting in the twenties, when it was not uncommon for a fighter to have a hundred or more fights before retiring, and in the second place, I have never met a drifter over sixty who did not claim forty-odd professional fights in his youth. “Were you ever a contender, Benny?” I asked.
“Well, they didn’t have ratings them days, but I fight Dundee twice.”
“Johnny Dundee?” a voice asked out of the dark.
“Naw,”Benny said to the darkness. “The Italian fella from Baltimore. Joe. Him and his brother was both fighters. I knock him out two minutes of the second round in San Francisco, nineteen twenty-eight. Look it up.”
“Joe Dundee was the welterweight champion, wasn’t he?” I asked, with what is always called growing respect. I had come suddenly to believe him. and I am impressed by old fighters and baseball players, because the work was much tougher in the old days. For the opposite reason I am not at all impressed by former football greats.
“He win the championship the next year, about a year after I knock him out.”
“What happened the second time you fought him?”
“Oh, yah. Like September that year. I knock him out in April, I think. September he beat me ten rounds a decision in the Garden. I got clippings around someplace. I’ll bring them in.”
He left us then to get the dishes done before the working porters showed up. That was all that they or anybody else asked of him, and he liked to get it done.
Benny finished the story of his second fight with Dundee when he brought me the clippings. “I coulda took him in the fifth round. I had him goin’ in the fourth. But after the round my manager says to me, What am I, crazy? Throwin’ away the best payday either of us ever seen? So I let him off the hook, and he goes ten rounds to a decision.”As he told me this, I read the clips. I had expected they would be from, say, the San Francisco Examiner of the day after the fight, and yellow and fragile and flaking at the edges. I was just learning about Benny. “Friend of mine found these and gave ‘em to me,” he said. They were two recent obituary columns on a former manager, run in successive issues of Ring magazine. Both columns closed by saying that while the dead manager had never handled a champion, he had come that close in 1928 when a boy of his, Benny —, knocked out Joe Dundee in two rounds in San Francisco, and so on. It was then that I learned Benny’s straight name.
Long before I saw the clips, in my willingness to believe that I had found a drifter over sixty who actually had been a fighter, I had come to see Benny in a very different way. He was no longer just a slack old man with white hair standing wild all over his head the minute he took off his hat, and with jailhouse tattoos gone the color of his eyes with age. He was the remnant of a tough and not-bright young man who had been thrown in against Dundee (on tour and not training properly), who had given San Francisco ringsiders what they always pay to see and never get: the local boy knocking out the big deal from the East. When I began to see him that way, he started to own me.
FOR different reasons, Benny owned everybody at Gogarty’s. From his first day of work, there was always a pile of change on the bar when I came in mornings — coins Benny had found on the floor, sweeping up. It didn’t occur to him to pocket the money. He had total access to perhaps four thousand dollars worth of beer and whiskey, but he would wait until I came in to ask permission to have a drink. That kind of honesty is not inconceivable to me, and I was only impressed. But when the bartenders and waiters, thieves and drunkards all, learned of it, they stood in awe akin to shock. They gave him money from their tips and stealing to show he owned them outright.
Jimmy Gibbs is as honest a man as you’re going to meet in matters of money or booze, but Jimmy’s honesty is not pervading. Like me, he will lie for harmony and put up with people who are not worth putting up with and laugh when nothing is really funny. It’s not obsequiousness. It’s schmier in the truest sense, and is quite civilized in intent at least. Benny had none of that in him. He knew one way to tell things—the way they happened. He could not and would not abide a fool, even a rich one, and if he saw nothing funny, he didn’t laugh. He would even fall into a sulk over some imagined slight from Gordon Stark — the owner of Gogarty’s and not only Benny’s employer, his benefactor — and refuse to speak to him even on payday, when Gordon was pressing money on him. Out of that kind of honesty, Benny came to own Jimmy Gibbs.
Gordon Stark did not need to be liked, but he enjoyed it. Benny wouldn’t give him an inch. Not even, as I have said, on payday, when Gordon was pushing money into his hand. It may have been precisely this refusal to show a shred of gratitude, or it may have been the marvelous arrogance of his sulks. One way or another, Benny’s wholly uncivilized and crotchety honesty got to Gordon, and he owned him, too.
When Benny came out of the hospital after his first attack, we kept him on the payroll with strict orders not to work. He could do the dishes while he was waiting for the other porters to arrive, but he was not to lay a hand on a broom, and he was never to enter the cellar again. There had been a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood, Gordon explained to me when I asked him just what Benny was supposed to do. Having somebody, anybody, present and visible in the store would discourage prowlers, he said. I nodded. It is bad for a guy like Gordon to know somebody owns him, and I saw no sense rubbing it in.
After his second attack, Benny’s grip on everything but our sympathies slackened noticeably, The first attack had been service-incurred, so to speak, and we felt a definite responsibility. The second took place the morning after Andy’s day off, and was simply not our fault, or so we reasoned.
Furthermore, there was money. We paid him half pay to do no more than come around and collect once a week. I still respected Benny; Jimmy Gibbs was still kind of in love with him; the night crew still stood in awe of his principle, and whatever hold he had on Gordon had grown rather than diminished. But Benny’s pay was just so much money out of somebody else’s pocket. He became for us an apartment on which we had unwisely signed a lease, and the rent for which had to be paid, although we had no need to open the door. “I pay enough taxes to support him and a dozen like him.” Gordon would rant, with justice, on the days Benny was to be paid. “There are plenty of agencies. Welfare, unemployment insurance, social security, old age pension. The Wagner Act was twenty years ago. He’s an old, sick man who can’t work anymore. This ain’t Dickens. He can eat and live. I pay taxes so he can eat and live. And me, too, if the same thing happens.” Gordon would then brandish Benny’s salary before my face, trusting in my abiding fondness for cash, and holler, “You and I could bounce around all night on this money.” He had a point.
He had a point, but it was for entirely different reasons that I decided Benny had to go. Not go out and die, of course, or we would have kept him. But go on relief or unemployment or collect the old-age benefits to which he was certainly entitled. Jimmy and I told him repeatedly to register, at least, with the appropriate agencies, and we discovered he had done nothing of the kind. I decided that he hadn’t bothered even to register because he had his three hots and a flop from us, that he wouldn’t make a move until I cut him off. I was wrong, it turned out, but that is the way I would behave, and none of us has much more to go on than that.
When I had made up my mind that Benny had to go, I said nothing until payday, waiting for Gordon’s weekly tirade and planning to agree with him for a change. Perhaps because he was hung over, Gordon ended his discourse on money down the drain on a sad note, which made what I intended to do seem somehow cruel. “He doesn’t even like me!” Gordon shouted. “I don’t mind the money or the extra work for everybody. Not for somebody who liked me. But he hates me!”
“Well, let’s cut him loose,” I said. “You pay him, and I’ll tell him today’s the last day.”
Gordon immediately granted a stay of execution and made me look like a rat. “We’ll give him another week. I’ll tell him today that next week is the last week. Come on, Ralph, where’s the old sonofabitch going to go?” That’s the way things happened around Benny.
ABOUT the time Gordon and I dropped Benny from the payroll, a bartender named Leigh discovered an apartment that nobody who has ever resided in New York will believe. The fact is it was an eight-room duplex with garden on East Fifty-eighth Street for one hundred and fifty dollars a month. I contracted for half of the rent, and Leigh and I moved Benny into the downstairs of the duplex — a small bedroom and large kitchen. We reserved for ourselves a couple of rooms apiece on the street-level floor. Benny was to be our “man,” although we never said so in his hearing or he would have gone bananas. His duties were to empty the ashtrays once in a while and remake the beds if they ever got empty. Leigh liked the idea of the two of us living with our “man” so much that he bought Benny a new bed at Bloomingdale’s and a secondhand television set for the kitchen table. I saw to it that there was plenty of food in the refrigerator.
But we gave him no money. We tried to create a need so that Benny would be compelled to seek federal or state or municipal help. Still he did not apply. Then Leigh hit upon nagging. When he discovered the enormous apartment, I conceded he was resourceful and perhaps bright. When he discovered nagging, I decided he was a genius. Benny couldn’t stand being pestered, and Leigh and I hounded him to apply to the agencies which were literally holding money for him. Our nuisance value was enough to make him register, but no money came of it. Rather, we received almost daily a noisy report of Benny’s newest clash with some minor figure of authority. “ ‘How do you live now?’ he asks me. ‘How do I live now?’ I says. ‘I got friends and I do spot work.’ ‘What’s spot work?’ he says. ‘You want to know what spot work is?’ I says. ‘I’ll tell you what spot work is. Spot work is you go to the super of a building and you ask him does he want the hall swabbed out or the stairs swept down. Coupla bucks. That’s spot work,’ I told him.” As the words rushed out of him, Benny waved his arms in furious symmetry. like a maniac playing Simon Says. For reasons of his own he was courting defeat. At times he looked and sounded as though to ensure defeat he was perfectly willing to start a fight.
My loyalties were with Benny, but my sympathy went to the people behind the desks Benny was sent to. They were there to help the unemployed, the aged, and the infirm, and before them stood a man who met all three qualifications beautifully, but who wanted to start a fight. “Take it easy, Benny,” Leigh or I would say. “Play the game. Be nice to the guy. Once you’re approved, all you have to do is roll over once a month so they can put a check in your pocket.” (Now that I think about it, it seems half of my conversations with Benny began, “Take it easy, Benny —”)
At any rate, Benny got no unemployment because he hadn’t applied within six weeks of losing his last job; he got no social security because he didn’t have a card and couldn’t get a card without a birth certificate, which, of course, he didn’t have either. These were all valid obstacles, yes, but they were thrown up in justifiable response to Benny’s animosity. They could be removed if Benny would take off his hat and talk sensibly to the officials involved. But that hat wouldn’t come off his head, and it annoyed hell out of me. I don’t mean to say he should have bent his knee. I didn’t want that. I just wanted him to state his case in civil terms and get the money that was coming to him. He wouldn’t do it.
My annoyance — and that was all it was — was compounded by the simple fact that Benny did not keep the apartment even bachelor-clean. If the ashtrays got emptied, it was not because he emptied them; if fresh linen got on the beds, it was because Leigh or I put it there. Leigh wanted to give the place up and take a two-and-a-half and have a maid in once a week for the same money. No New Yorker gives up a big, cheap apartment without considerable mulling, and I decided to have a talk with Benny.
When I got downstairs to talk to Benny, I found him sitting at the kitchen table before the television set, utterly engrossed in the wrestling matches. My annoyance then almost got out of hand. If he had been upstairs emptying the ashtrays, just emptying the lousy ashtrays, he would have had a roof for the winter, and I wouldn’t have had to surrender my enormous apartment. I said, “What are you watching those bums for?”
Benny turned to me briefly and said, “It’s all fixed, y’know,” and turned back to the screen, totally rapt.
“I know it’s all fixed. It’s all faked, too. You know that better than I do. Why do you bother watching?”
He put his finger on the screen — he was that close — and demonstrated for me that absence of appreciation for the verities of combat that old fighters for some appalling reason share with the ringside harridans on Channel 5. “This guy in the leotard here, the Bruiser, he’s a killer. A man ain’t the same after he’s been in with him.”
Months of accumulated annoyance just flushed away. “Leotard! Where in hell did you pick up a word like leotard?”
Benny threw his thumb over his shoulder in a gesture of surprising vehemence. “All Leigh’s girls,” he said, “they all wear leotards. There’s leotards in every room upstairs.”
Then I saw something I should have seen long before. “Is that why you don’t clean upstairs?”
“You don’t know what goes on here afternoons. After you go out — Boy. I don’t go upstairs except to go to the bathroom, go out.”
I knew precisely what went on upstairs: the same thing, with embellishments, that goes on upstairs everywhere. “What goes on upstairs, Benny?”
“When you ain’t around, Leigh’s got all his friends in all day and girls and liquor and I’ll tell you what.” He turned from the wrestling match to face me. “God knows what they’re smokin’ up there. I went up one time, I thought maybe the carpet was on fire, somethin’. I go up there and ask what’s on fire, and they all laugh like hell at me.” He turned back to the television, a small hump between his shoulders pulsing with indignation. “I go upstairs to go to the bathroom, go out. That’s all.”
What I was seeing then that I should have seen a long time before was the puritan strain in Benny. How pleased his manager must have been, some forty years ago, to have found this kind of fighter. “A good boy,” he could tell the other managers in San Francisco’s equivalent of the Neutral Corner. “Don’t even smoke. I don’t have to watch him before a fight, he wouldn’t look at a woman anyway.” How alarmed that manager must have been in the Garden in September, 1928, when he knew he had sixty seconds to persuade his puritan to let Dundee off the hook.
That conversation was the end of the apartment. Benny could not live in Leigh’s sin, and I could not live in dirt. “We’re moving out of here in a couple of weeks, Benny,”I said. “You’ll want to find yourself a pad somewhere, so start looking. You need any money in the meantime, let me know. Right?”
Benny certainly had known something like this was going to happen when he stopped cleaning. He didn’t take his eyes off the Bruiser. “OK, Ralph,” he said, “thanks for the room.” Not a complaint in the world. I don’t think he had the mechanisms to complain. Just bitch.
IT WAS a long winter for Benny. His luck and a lot of the people he owned ran out on him. After we surrendered the apartment, Leigh and his entourage took off for Tangiers, then the mecca of the live-it-up set, so there was nothing from them. Furthermore, there is a steady, if not rapid, turnover of bartenders at Gogarty’s. With every month, fewer of them knew who the old man was, and they had no idea they were supposed to share their tips and stealing with him. Gordon Stark felt, probably correctly, that he had done more than enough. Benny was left with Jimmy Gibbs and me.
Every two or three days, when I arrived at the saloon, Benny would be standing in the next doorway, bunched shoulders almost touching in the cold. He could have waited inside. He had been inside and been welcomed and fed by Jimmy, but he preferred to wait for me in the next doorway, freezing. (That would be part of the self-immolation that made him a manager’s delight. “I don’t hafta make him work out, I gotta make him stop. He’d run to Chicago, I told him it was roadwork.”) Benny would shuffle a step or two out of the doorway to make sure I saw him as I got out of the cab, and I would walk over to him and give him what he needed or what I could spare, whichever was the lesser. There was never a hard-luck story. His need was too obvious. He’d say, “I could use five if you got it,” and I would lay five on him if I had it. That was the sum of the conversation.
For an old drifter, winter in New York is a death of a harsh kind. On the Bowery, prowl cars drive slowly in December because there’s always some bum trying to throw himself under the wheels so he can spend Christmas indoors. Whenever I saw Benny I gave him money, but I was in town only three or four days a week that winter, and the old man got into pretty shocking shape. He contracted pneumonia, which is not surprising, and survived it, which is miraculous, because he cultivated the pneumococcus every way he knew and had no desire to survive it.
I have said that when he disappeared the second time, with what we later learned was a second heart attack, I had wished Benny dead. If it is at all possible to have decent motives in wishing a man dead, I had them. It is all right to divorce yourself from the world, to make concessions to nobody, when you are twenty-nine and knock out Joe Dundee. It is also all right to be the anticitizen when you are of simple habits and can make all the money you need sweeping out bars. It is another thing entirely to be sixty-two, broke, and the veteran of two coronaries, and try to remain angry and right. The sad fact is it can’t be done. I knew it and wished him dead. Benny knew it, too, and worked on his pneumonia all winter, to no avail.
AROUND the first of the year a curious thing happened. Jimmy Gibbs and two of his aunts bought a house somewhere on western Long Island. Jimmy was to move his wife and three kids up from Pittsburgh, and the aunts were to move down from Harlem, and everybody was to live in matriarchal contention in the new house. It was all a trap set by the family for Jimmy, to make him go back to his wife and settle down. The curious bit is that Jimmy invited Benny to move in with the lot of them for as long as he wanted to stay. Just to move in and be their guest. If that doesn’t strike you as curious, you have been out of the country a long time. Benny never declined the invitation, but he never moved in, either. Jimmy said nothing about it to me, but I think he was a little hurt. He may have thought Benny’s lack of acceptance had something to do with color. Well, it didn’t. Benny wanted no connection with people, and it made no difference to him what color they were. If he had moved in with the Gibbses he would then have been part of something; they would learn his habits and he theirs; he would share their lives and they would share his. Benny preferred to die in the street. That he would necessarily do all alone and therefore perhaps do quite well.
The last, or almost the last, that any of us saw of Benny was a morning visit he had with Jimmy Gibbs. I was on my way to the country for a few days and stopped at Gogarty’s for a couple of free drinks for the trip. Jimmy had finished his work and was having his couple of free drinks before driving to his new home. We sat together at the end of the bar.
“Benny was here this morning,” Jimmy said, ready to laugh, almost strangling on a bubble of glee.
I smiled, waited for the rest of it. “He come in like he comes in most mornings. You know, shufflin’ along, and he goes straight to the kitchen. Most mornings he asks me is it all right for him to make coffee and do I want some. Not this morning. He goes straight to the kitchen.” Jimmy gave a quick burst of laughter at what was to come, and I laughed with him for no reason at all. “This morning he goes right ahead and makes himself some coffee and he makes some for me and he sets the cups and the sugar and all on the table and says, ‘Jimmy, come on over here and sit down.’ ” Here Jimmy gave another burst of laughter at the thought of old Benny bossing him. “So I went over and sat down real politely and he says, ‘Have some coffee.’ I figure OK and I have some coffee and Benny says to me, ’You work, Jimmy. Work your ass off. I quit!'” At this Jimmy went into gales and took me with him. When he got his wind he went on, quoting Benny. “ ‘I ain’t never workin’ another day in my life. I ain’t raisin’ a hand. Worked all my life it got me no place. You work. I quit!’
“So I said, ‘That’s real nice, Benny’ ” — again Jimmy went off into that catchy gleeful laughter, taking me with him — “ ‘That’s real nice,’ I said. ‘What do you figure to do? Maybe I’ll quit and do it with you,’ and Benny throws a check on the table with holes in it and I pick it up and it’s made out to Benny for three hundred forty-two dollars and change.”
“Somebody downtown liked him,” I said.
“Hell, no. He bitched enough he got himself shut off everywhere. Couldn’t get a cent. Then some old bum buddy of his told him to try the Legal Aid Society. Legal Aid lawyer took Benny to social security and they’re out of there in twenty minutes. Couple days later Benny gets his check for almost four months back payments. Since he registered.”
It is altogether possible that I was getting a little stiff, because I was almost in pain at the news. I mopped at a juicy eye and said, “Beautiful. Benny with three bills in his pocket. What’s he going to do with all that money?”
Jimmy mimicked Benny. “I’m gonna sleep all mornin’, go to the pitcher show every afternoon and the fights at the Garden every Saturday night.” It was Benny exactly, and we both laughed for a long time.
“Whoo!” I said finally, wiping both eyes. “When are we going to see him again?”
“He’ll be back. He said he’d be dropping in from time to time to see how the lay-boring class was making out.”And Jimmy and I both laughed some more, which proves beyond doubt that both of us were stiff.
I NEVER saw Benny again. When I got back to town there was a Western Union money order waiting for me for fifty dollars, a sum Benny and I had decided upon weeks before. It was less than I had given him and more than I had ever expected to get from him. I had set a figure because I was sure that if I told him to forget the whole thing his pride would get to him and he’d starve or freeze before he asked for more. I cashed the money order at once so that Benny would reckon we were even and would know the door was open if he got hung up again. I also cashed the money order at once because I have never known a day when I couldn’t use an extra fifty bucks.
Weeks passed, and months, and I had pretty much forgotten Benny. It was easy enough. Nobody spoke of him to me, and he no longer shuffled out of the next doorway to greet me on arrival. Jimmy brought him back to mind. I overheard him make a mildly bitter reference to Benny as he and his men sat at lunch. “What kind of talk is that about old Benny?” I said.
A porter at Jimmy’s side who knew Benny well waved a piece of bread at me and said, “Benny who, Benny what?”
“Hasn’t he been around?” I asked. I had assumed Benny still visited once in a while, but that he came around early in the morning, when I do my sleeping.
Jimmy looked at me evenly, as though I were somehow to blame, being white. “He ain’t been back here since the morning I told you about. Morning he made coffee and showed me his check. Not one time. Not to say hello or go to hell.”
“Jesus,” I said, “I hope he’s not dead. Not now that he’s got some money and can enjoy himself for a change.”
“He ain’t dead,” Jimmy said.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,”Jimmy said, and bent quickly to his food, as though he had said more than he wanted to. “I’ll talk to you about it later,” he added, to show we were still friends.
He never did talk to me about it later, although we often spoke of Benny. It’s my guess that Jimmy got worried about Benny and drove over to Twentyninth and Eighth only to find Benny sunning himself on a bench or shuffling out of a doorway. Instead of being relieved that Benny was alive, Jimmy was sore he hadn’t visited. I don’t blame him. I’m a little sore myself. All this is a guess, of course. I’ve never asked Jimmy how he knew Benny was alive and I’m not going to. But I’m curious, and I’m waiting for him to volunteer the information. Perhaps one day when he looks like Uncle Tom and I look like Barry Fitzgerald he will tell me. Until then it’s his business.
When we talk about Benny, Jimmy grills me. He assumes that I have some responsibility for the man’s behavior, or that I will know some of the answers, because I am white. Over and over again I say I don’t know, which is my favorite answer always and particularly appropriate here. But the fact is I know all the answers and I don’t like to talk about it.
Jimmy is wrong in thinking that Benny belongs to the white race. Uncle Sam is wrong in thinking he belongs to the United States. He doesn’t belong to Gordon, who pressed money on him he could not afford, or to the bartenders who shared tips and stealing with him, or to Leigh, who bought him a television set and a bed. He doesn’t belong to Jimmy, who fed him and offered him his home. He doesn’t even belong to the family that raised him and whose name he simply let go of without cheer or remorse. He doesn’t belong to you, which is OK, and he doesn’t belong to me, which is not OK at all.
That’s the part that hurts, of course, and why I never explain all this to Jimmy. Because I am an independent sort myself, because I am a fight buff, because I am vain, I thought the old sonofabitch belonged to me. He doesn’t, so when Jimmy asks me how Benny could duck out on us like that, expecting some answer from me because I am similarly abandoned, and more, because I am white like Benny, I just say I don’t know.