If you ever get the urge to write a grant proposal to acquire something you need, don't do it! The paperwork is overwhelming. Your actual idea is such a small part, the rest is just information that nobody reads. But I did it. I'm an administrator and should be doing such things, after all. I typed "ACQUISITION OF TROLLEY CAR" into the last box, which requested the proposal title for the ninth time, and hit SEND.
An administrator who wants to acquire a Trolley Car - not much of an introduction. Well I'm one of the top six administrators who runs one of the larger county nursing homes ("geriatric facilities") in the State of New York, and while I honestly know very little about the residents or clients or customers or whatever they might prefer to be called, the people on top don't seem to have a problem with my work. I do what I'm told, usually (which is not much).
Perhaps you'll find a few bits of my story difficult to believe, so let me just say my brain is wired to be an introvert, and to be incapable of remembering names.
As an example of this, when I started my inconceivably well-paying job here as the administrator in charge of purchasing, the gentleman who was retiring was kind enough to give me three legal pad pages of hand-written notes on what to do. Items like "Order 12,000 rolls of toilet paper every other Thursday", and "Order 62 turkeys on October 24". It was everything I needed to keep the place going. I wrote the notes on a calendar and every other Thursday morning on my secretary's desk, before she would get in, I would leave a note - 'please order 12,000 rolls of toilet paper. R'. She would usually have the work done about three minutes after I heard her come in, and she usually would bring P.O.s in, point to the signing line, and I would. One day about three months after I arrived, she came in and told me a few things. When she knocked and walked in I slipped a pencil out of my desk drawer and rested my writing hand and pencil on a small pad, as I often would do. She said, "First, my name is Phyllis (or something), in case you may ever want to address me personally. Second, I know what needs to be ordered so you can forget your little notes. Also I'll sign the P.O's for you."
"Could you ..." I began.
"Yes," she said. "I'll make you a copy of each P.O. and put them in your mailbox, for your records. OK?"
I nodded, and out she went. When she left, I tore off a small corner of my pad on which I'd scrawled Phyllis, and put it in my wallet.
Unfortunately, my quiet life changed one day when some gentleman who I hadn't met in the seven years I'd been here, stuck his head in my office and yelled at me.
"Figure out where in Hell you're working, Jake! Get out there! Talk to the people we serve! You can't hide in your office forever."
'Well, good to meet you as well,' I thought.
After being chewed out, I pulled out my wallet and, 5 minutes later, had 22 pieces of paper on my desk. Sally, Janet, Phyllis - a collection of names. I threw them away and was forced to speak to my secretary, without a net.
When she came back, I said, "Um, do you know who that gentleman is who stuck his head in my office earlier?"
"Do you remember Charles, who interviewed and hired you?" she asked.
"Tall thin man?" I asked.
"Yes. Charles is your boss," she explained. (Why she would tell me this when I had no pencil or pad seemed thoughtless.)
"That man is Charles' boss," she continued. "OK?"
"My boss's boss. How on earth did he know me?" I asked her.
She explained that it was probably some sort of magic, and she left. I was apparently dismissed. I was left with his comment still ringing in my head. 'You can't hide in your office forever.'
I was sincerely hoping that I could actually hide in my office forever. (I had a daily routine that I liked to follow and it didn't include speaking to people.) His suggestions, which he had orally presented, all showed up in my "annual review" (my first), which arrived in my mailbox the next morning.
That afternoon I called over to some nurse in the trenches, who works with those people every day (the only name I recognized in the Directory), and asked if she could get together a cross-section of residents in a room for me to chat with.
Nurse Engles laughed. "You must be kidding me. OK, lets see, I can get you one wheelchair -bound 95 year old man, perhaps an 84 year old woman who can't hear a word and won't wear her hearing aids, half should have pretty severe Alzheimer's, some will just sit and stare and talk to their sandwich, that might be pretty good as a cross-section!"
She paused, then blurted out "3 PM, don't be late," and hung up.
Now I've worked here for seven years (oh yes, I did tell you that already), and to be honest I try to avoid adults who throw up on me and smell and call me Sonny and don't know if we're related or not; so yes, I have hid in my office.
Reluctantly, and embarrassed, I hit redial, and got Nurse Engles again. "Sorry, I forgot to ask, where are we meeting at 3 PM?"
She said, "Room 221," laughed, and hung up. It wasn't the kind of laugh that made me feel any better.
I hit redial. She didn't say hello, but got right into it. "Let me guess, you don't even know what building I'm in, do you?"
I knew of Nurse Engles; she's legendary here. She'd been a fixture since her first day at work - just one of those people who happily fills the space she works in. I had no idea what she looked like or even how many buildings we had. I was forced to say, "I'm sorry, but no I don't."
"Well exit out your front door, look for the sun, and follow it two buildings over. No wonder this place is such a mess. It's people like you!"
In two days I'd gotten my ass chewed out by a superior and now by a member of the staff. So much for flying under the radar.
I did as I was told just as the sun went behind a dark cloud, found room 221 (second floor, go figure), and entered a room with almost a dozen cats for me to herd, with what was obviously a Nurse Engles standing by the door. I told her that we'd be fine, which I wasn't, and she left, closing the door behind her.
Pleasantries with this group didn't go well. They wouldn't really sit for me, didn't seem to want to talk, or wanted to talk too much about fish or bridges or their toes. This was going nowhere. I asked them if they wanted some ice cream (I was desperate). No response. Damn, that was my best topic. Frustrated and a bit exhausted, I sat down in one of the chairs and stared at the floor. I suck. I admit it. After a few minutes I noticed a shoe not far from mine. I looked up. They were all seated in the circle with me! I guess you have to blend in to be noticed around here. I looked at them. They looked at me! It seemed like a limited window of opportunity, so I said, "what do you people want?"
They looked at each other, slowly got up, shuffled, rolled and crawled over to a corner. I have no idea how or why they went to that corner without a word between them. They were actually conferring, it seemed! Then they slowly returned to our circle, and their spokesman, an old guy in a flannel shirt and one leg cut off at the knee, rolled over to me - rolled until his knee ran into mine.
"Jake," he said to me, "Jake we want a trolley car. All of us. We really want a trolley car."
Then they left.
As they meandered away at a glacial speed, I called to them. "Why? Why do you want a trolley car? What is this all about?"
A few waved but none looked back.
The next day Nurse Engles actually called me. "Jake," she said, "are you supposed to be here?"
"What?" I replied.
"Well they're here, in the same room. The same group. Never saw them hang out together before. And it looks like they started without you!"
I assured her that we had no plans.
The next day the phone rang. It was Engles. It was 9 AM. "Jake," she said, "I don't know what you did to them, but they went into that room at 3 PM, and they just left. I swear they spent all night in there. Anything you want to tell me?"
I shrugged - a pretty lame response for the phone, but like I said, I don't get out much.
"They told me they wanted a trolley car," I said.
"Got it," she replied, as she shrugged back and hung up.
That afternoon at 2:55 PM I decided to take a walk. I strolled over two buildings, to the second floor. The last of the Gang of Twelve was going into the room. I followed. I looked down to see what just hit my knees, and it was their spokesman again.
"Listen, Jake," he gruffly growled, "we're kinda busy now. But we're committed to this. We need a trolley car. Get us one. We gots lots of reasons. Gus there, he used to be a trolley car driver. Is that cool or what? Grace over there, the old lady in the chair, sweet Rose, the deaf broad, Mr. Brood (the guy in the suit), and Jazzy Jeff, they all used to ride trolley cars. They wanta be in one again. Ain't that reason enough?"
"What about the rest of you? What about them?" I asked, pointing to guys who were writing on the wall.
"Well, one is our Director, and one is our Set Manager," he explained. And with that I was shooed out.
About 18 hours later, my desk phone rang. It was my new friend Nurse Engles, who was now calling me again.
"OK, so they finally told me that they want a trolley car and why, and you're going to get them one," she stated.
"I am?" I replied. "Why?"
"Well, I've been doing some homework. It's a good idea, that's why. Maybe you need convincing. Come see me. We're gonna take a walk," she said.
"Now?" I asked. I'd never had to do anything, ever, here now.
"Now," she repeated, and hung up.
I had no idea, but all of our buildings (nineteen!) are constructed with interconnecting underground corridors, and we walked from building to building free of the thunderstorm outside. I got to see the best residents; I got to see the worst. For some, I couldn't imagine why they were here, for others why they were still alive. She seemed to know each and every one of them. Sometimes she'd take me to a resident and would introduce me to them. Sometimes she'd just point and tell me to go talk to someone. It was a draining day.
Some of the people were so desperate just to talk to anyone. I can't imagine how many days they go without conversation. (Sounds like Heaven.) At that moment I vowed to come back to see them again soon. I met an Army vet who was very much like my father; it was wonderful to be with him and difficult at the same time. I saw a woman who looked a lot like my Aunt Helen, who died at 103. Nurse Engles pointed to a woman who was standing ... just standing. She had a coat and hat on. She clutched her bag, and just stood. I approached her, said hello, and asked her what she was up to.
She pointed to the exit sign above her head and said, "waiting for the trolley."
When I got back to Nurse Engles, I said, "Is she a plant or something?"
Engles smiled. "Magic," she said.
Actually today wasn't bad. It was nice to talk to some of the residents. I think my nurse compatriot had a pretty good idea of how this would impact me - how guilty it would make me feel. It was the first day of my weekly walk through the property. She had done her homework all right; she knew very well what a good idea this was.
That evening, surfing the web, I learned that retired trolleys go/went into a big state and federal database of "equipment" that state/federally-funded agencies can go to. Popular stuff like band saws or drill presses or air conditioners or food processing equipment always gets saved and usually used by someone else, but they have things like buses and trolleys, and the proprietor of the 200 acre site that houses all this junk told me there wouldn't be a lot of competition for a trolley car, so he told me how to request one. There is no cost to anyone - we ask for it and if no one else wants it, it's ours. They even deliver! He suggested that I ask for at least 40 meters of track, so I could set it up correctly. Long story short, I made the request and it was approved. I decided not to tell my fellow administrators what I had done (since I had no idea if I could really justify it). One day two short men and a very large flatbed truck drove onto our campus, asked me where I wanted it, laid the track on the ground, hoisted the Trolley off and onto the tracks which sunk into the ground. I was clearly in over my head, I decided, as I looked at the 46-foot long car. It had tipped the scales at 40,000 pounds. There was a wooden box still on the truck, about the size of a breadbox, if breadboxes were the size of a Volvo. One of the truck guys pointed to it and said, "and I suppose you expect us to set that up."
I shrugged. "Depends on what it is."
He stared at me. "Well they threw in a generator, you lucky dog. It don't work on batteries, you know."
I wasn't quite sure why it needed to work, but I thought these strange little men were trying to do a good deed, so I told them I'd really appreciate their help with the generator, and I gave them each $30 when they were done and were packing up.
We had ourselves a trolley car.
Now I don't think I've seen many trolleys in my life, so I didn't know if this was a big one or not, but the flatbed pulled away, I stood beside it, for some reason choosing not to go inside, and took it all in. In its own way, it was an amazing piece of Americana. It had a NYC Transit logo on the side. A small informational plate on the back indicated that it was a President's Conference Committee (PCC) streetcar, constructed in 1950. (If I would have looked inside I would have found a wooden box that was filled with subway tokens - hundreds of them!) I was so taken in with the details of it all that I had barely heard the crunch of tires as a vehicle pulled up behind me and stopped.
The screaming voice was familiar. It was my boss's boss (my BB).
"What in Hell is this?" he bellowed.
"It's called a trolley car," I said. Sarcasm, It's so not a good thing at times like this. I just can't help myself.
"You're an idiot," he replied. "How did this thing get here?"
"I acquired it from a state equipment storage facility," I explained.
"You? Why?" he asked.
"They wanted one," I explained. "You told me to get out and talk to the residents so now I do. It was amazing how many of them had experiences they could remember that happened in a trolley car."
"This is equivalent to a new structure on campus here. Did you get a permit to construct? Was it inspected before delivery? Is it a fire hazard? A chemical hazard? Does it leak anything? Did you ever ask anyone for permission to do this? Do you know if there are any other plans for construction here between buildings 6 and 17? Why wasn't I informed?" He fired off a long list of questions.
"All good questions, Sir", I said. "I guess the answer to most of them is 'no' or 'sorry'."
He was silent for a moment, then screamed, "Get this damn thing outa here. Now! Or I will!"
I stared at his car as he drove off. I didn't notice, but the closest window of the closest building had been opened during that brief conversation and just out of view, one could see, if they really looked, a shape wearing a nurse's white lab coat.
As soon as we had a trolley car, I sent a note out to the staff, encouraging them to take residents out to see it. Just keep the group small. Reports came back that residents would always find it exciting, and would usually sit inside and relive some trolley conversation that only they would understand. People were getting to know it, getting to want it.
I didn't know which would be worse, to be fired by my BB, or to have to face those two truck drivers if they had to come and take it back. I spent some time trying to understand the system, pleading with inspectors and all sorts of permit offices, trying to give my acquisition some legitimacy. I was hoping that, with a good list of resident trolley car users, I could eventually justify its presence.
I also briefly considered acquiring a train car, a bus, and a 727, since the creation of a transportation museum on campus would make the Trolley Car almost irrelevant by comparison, but I must admit that was after a tumbler of scotch/rocks that was substantial. I shouldn't drink at work.
Nurse Engles sent me an envelope, a few weeks after our new toy arrived. It had a few pages of a script in it, a mocked up "Playbill", and apparently the role of the homeless person was being played by "Jake". All of my lines were highlighted. It indicated that practice would begin tomorrow, and every day thereafter, at 1 PM.
Practices were short. To be specific, we practiced parts of this hastily written play that I was in, then I was dismissed so they could work on the rest.
I was told to dress like I was a rich person who had recently become homeless (whatever that meant; I assumed it meant recently fired). It was finally showtime! The performance would be just after everyone had dinner, which they start serving at 3:45 PM. My group of 12, with the help of many others, had written some sort of play related to our new addition.
There was a total of 15 "actors" plus me. I recognized some of them from the original group. There were 15 additional people there, who were handpicked as the audience - residents who could appreciate what was about to happen. Everyone was given a token and a seat assignment, and with the help of many orderlies, the Trolley Car was eventually filled with 31 people.
The count ended up being 32. A black Caddy pulled up and my BB got out. Someone handed him a seat assignment. An orderly tried to take him to his seat but was scowled away. He entered the car, walked down the aisle not looking at anyone including me, and took his seat near the back.
Behind us was a building that I'd recently been referring to in my mind as The Castle, Building 8. It had everything but a moat! It was only appropriate that out of it came four of the biggest old people I'd ever seen. The crowd in the Trolley Car applauded them as they marched out in a line. They stopped and bowed, then walked behind the car, disappearing from our point of view.
Gus, who was sitting in the driver's seat with an actual uniform on, complete with hat, stood up and faced the mostly-full car. Faces beamed. "Welcome to the city, folks. Just pull the cable when we get to your stop. Everybody paid up?"
Everyone eagerly nodded. Many held up their tokens! Apparently I didn't get this page of the script, but I tried to follow the crowd. Gus sat down, and pulled a big lever. The door closed. (The parts work! I was just beginning to actually understand how big this acquisition was.)
The trolley car started up, and I must admit that my initial sense of panic was substantial. The trolley started to move back and forth and the clatter, well it completely took me back. I looked around. Most of the people were smiling. I was sitting in front of Rose and Mr. Brood; across the aisle two older ladies, both wearing their hats and jackets, as proper women would, held hands. The big folks, the Castle dwellers behind the car, did an amazing job of rocking it on its old springs, and making the most realistic sounds. This was talent. We all loved it.
There are two rows of round lights that go from the front to the back in this vintage of Trolley. Gus had a bank of switches on a bent piece of aluminum in front of him. He flipped on switch #7, which had been written on a piece of paper beside them. Apparently he was the driver and was in charge of lighting for the play as well. The light illuminated two of the actors, Rose, and Mr. Brood. Spotlights for the show! Mr. Brood's Parkinson's was pretty severe. He held onto the bar above the seat in front of him with one hand, and did his best to take Rose's hand with his other. He was rather striking - black suit, black hat, white shirt, red tie - although he needed a shave. Everyone sat silently on the clattering bus, watching these two in their spotlight. The trolley had a big round mirror in the front, allowing many to watch what was happening behind them without having to turn around. The black suit looked into Rose's eyes. She had the biggest smile on her pudgy wrinkled little face.
He said, for us all to hear, "Rose, I know I ain't got much, and I know I ain't much to look at, and you know this is the only suit I gots, but the good Lord knows how much I love you, my dear sweet girl, and I can't imagine my life without you in it. Rose, would you please marry me?"
Rose said, "No."
He never stopped looking into her eyes. "I promise, Rose, I'll find a better job somehow and we'll have a good life. No one will ever love you more than I do, Rose, please, will you marry me, baby?"
Rose said, "No."
Everyone who could hear had eyes a-bugging, not believing what they were hearing.
He asked, "But why, Rose? Don't you love me?"
Rose said, "Erwin, we know that your brother Gus gets so nervous over such things, and I really do understand why he asked you to ask me for him. But I think this is something he has to do himself."
The black suit tried to protest, "But, Rose, he's driving the trolley!"
Gus flipped on light # 12, which was over him. He reached for the microphone and announced over the speakers, " 43rd Street, 43rd. Rose! Marry me, huh? Will ya?"
Rose yelled to him, "Of course I will Gus. You know I love you."
The trolley went crazy. Everyone applauded, except for my BB, who just sat. Gus pulled the trolley to a stop (it stopped rocking), and after he opened the door and one rider went out, Gus ran back, leaned over his brother and gave Rose a big smooch. (Side story, Gus apparently really did look so much like Rose's husband of 50 years that she often got them confused, sometimes calling Gus Joseph (her husband's name), sometimes referring to her deceased husband Gus, and sometimes even calling Gus by the name Gus.)
"Oh, that was yummy, Gus," Rose giggled.
With our driver back in his seat and the door now closed, we resumed our trip. He flipped off the lights that were on and turned on light #17, close to the door.
The man they called Jazzy Jeff, one of our very oldest residents, a black man with a brace on one leg, and a small tank of oxygen on wheels that he pulled with him everywhere (accompanied by a tube to a small device just under his nose, held in place with a big rubber band), sat close to the front. He was wearing shorts, black socks and dress shoes. Someone had made for him what boys used to wear, a hat called a beanie. Next to him, taking up most of the bench built for two, was a much larger black woman with silver hair, and a small shopping cart stuck between her knees.
Jazzy looked up at her. "Momma?" he said.
This was a deviation from the script for sure. The person seated in front of him, who happened to have a copy of the script, turned around to Jazzy and tried to quietly say, "Jazzy! Of course it's your momma! She's taking you to the zoo today. You one lucky boy, Jazzy."
It was all he needed. He started to hop up and down in his seat. "Momma, momma, momma! We's going to the zoo? Honest?"
She smiled at him. "Baby, you know you been wanting to see a zebra since the day you wuz born. We gonna take care of that today, child."
"Yay!" he laughed. There was no doubt in my mind. He was nine years old. The woman with the poorly fitting wig was surely Jazzy's mother in his eyes. It was an amazing transformation to watch; a generous gift for her to give a stranger, a fellow resident.
"And, and can I git some peanuts there to feed the elephants?" he asked excitedly. Sometimes he just didn't have the strength to be loud enough, but the spirit was with him.
"No honey," she said. Just before he started to cry, she laughed and pulled him close to her.
"Oh you funny boy," she said. "I told you I bought peanuts at the store. We already got them. And what makes you think you know how to feed a elephant, anyway?"
Jazzy beamed. "Well, Franklin said he went to the zoo with his aunt and uncle, and he said he fed a elephant who walked right up to the fence where he was standing. If Franklin did it, I'm doing it."
"And if the elephant don't know you got peanuts, whatcha gonna do?"
"I'm gonna call him, ma'm."
"You know how to do that, Jazzy?"
"Sure, Ma, you just go ELEPHANT, ELEPHANT, ELEPHANT!"
His voice echoed through the car for all to hear. We all celebrated the excitement of youth. He cuddled in momma's arm, against her body, and sighed. This was gonna be the best day of his life. Elephant!
Gus turned the light off as Jazzy melted into his mother's love.
Gus switched on two lights in the rear of the trolley. A bench that could seat four wrapped across the back of the car. On it sat two very old souls, dressed as teenagers of a time gone by. They held hands and leaned away from the third person, a dirty smelly old guy whose eyes kept closing, almost nodding off. He belched louder than Jazzy's 'Elephant.' I expected Jazzy to throw him a peanut. The Belcher looked at our teenage girl and touched her arm. She recoiled.
"Hey, girly, "he slurred, "You're sitting on my money. You're sitting on my nickels."
She looked at her boyfriend and stood up; of course there was nothing there, so she sat back down.
Her boyfriend leaned over her and said to the drunk, "sorry, sir, no nickels here."
Belcher continued to babble. "No, no. I was sitting there and my nickels fell outa my pocket. I heard them. Give me my nickels back! Come on! Stop playing around!"
With every word he got louder. The boy got up, slid his girl over on the seat, against the wall of the car, and sat between her and Mr. Drunk. "Sir, please, leave us alone. There's nowhere else to sit and we don't have your nickels."
"Why you little runt! You think you can steal my money? Get up! Give them to me!"
We could literally see the boy's knees get weak as he got up. His voice quivered. "You're a little too drunk to be on a public trolley, sir. Maybe you should get off."
"Get off?" he roared. "Do you see where we are? This is 30th Street. Now why would I get off at 30th Street you damn fool?"
He stood up and towered over the "boy". While the pitch of his voice lowered, it boomed. "You don't give me my nickels then I'm just gonna have to shake them outa you." He reached for the boyfriend's shoulders.
A blur of black streaked down the row, and the black suit had a hold of Mr. Belcher before his hand could reach the boy. Just as quickly a second rider was up, who grabbed the other hand, and twisted it behind the drunk's back. Together, Gus's brother and my BB pushed him down the aisle, and as Gus opened the door, the drunk was assisted out onto the street by my BB, who never got back on.
"Welcome to 30th Street," Gus's brother yelled to the drunk. He waved to my BB. "Thank you, sir," he yelled.
Gus held out his hand. "Thank you. Sometimes I'm so proud to be your brother."
"You think we got the same daddy?" the black suit teased him. He laughed, knocked off Gus's hat, and messed up his hair.
"Hey! The girls expect me to look good!" Gus protested, and life on the trolley quickly got back to normal.
In the back seat a girl's voice quietly said, "You protected me. You stood up for me. That was really nice."
The boy smiled and took her hand again, hoping he looked brave, happy he hadn't been beaten up. Happy he hadn't peed himself. It didn't go quite as well the first time, many years ago, but he had been given the opportunity to rewrite history.
Gus closed the door and the trolley ride continued. For the next hour, little snippets of life took place, one by one, all over the car. There were arguments, old friends meeting again, couples in turmoil, a pregnant momma with an urgent need to get to the Hospital on 18th Street, a homeless man with much to learn, and we were all totally caught up in it.
The Trolley stopped, and Gus opened the door. He picked up his microphone to again address the riders. "Eighteenth Street; Eighteenth!" The pregnant girl excused herself, wiggled past the person next to her and ran out the door!
"We got a little delay here," Gus continued. "I can't believe it, there's a baby buggy on the tracks!"
He went out the door. As soon as he did, two young punks, both wearing white shirts and pants (played by orderlies) jumped onto the Trolley. One pulled the handle to close the door while the other pulled a gun out of his waistband.
"OK, people, your driver fell for the old baby buggy on the tracks trick, so we're here to robs yous all blind."
The blind guy in aisle six yelled, "too late!"
The one with the gun pulled off his hat and started prancing up and down the aisle, giddy, stopping at people and waving his gun at them.
"Come on, sister, that's a pretty little pin you're wearing. Hand it over! Hey, buddy, you can't hide that watch! Give it up, or I'll splatter you on the ceiling."
"Whoo!" the other one yelled as he flopped into the driver's seat, and started playing with knobs and switches and pedals. Lights flickered on and off. The trolley briefly lurched forward.
"Hey Arnie," he yelled to his buddy. "We're stealing a trolley car! Guess we got a ride home."
A man's scream filled our ears. The punk behind the wheel jumped up and looked out the window.
"Oh crap, Arnie, let's get outa here," he yelled.
He opened the door.
"We ran over that bonehead! Damn!"
They jumped out the door and were gone. Everyone sat still, not knowing quite what to do. Rose beat Gus's brother to the front windshield, then quickly looked away - "Oh Gus, no!" Slowly the entire crowd emptied out of the trolley car and circled around Gus, who was laying on the tracks just under the front of the trolley.
For an old guy, his acting was just too good. Something seemed very wrong. I pushed my way to him and got down on one knee, putting my cheek close to his face. He wasn't breathing, or so I thought. Suddenly his two hands grabbed my face, he kissed my cheek, and with a big laugh he jumped up! The crowd laughed and cried and applauded.
"Thanks, Doc," he said, "but you don't have to worry about me. Ain't nothing gonna happen to Gus on a day like this, Right Rose?"
Rose waved from the small crowd to her man.
Feeling like I'd just become a part of the play again, I had to ask, "but Gus, you were under the Trolley, down on the ground. We thought you'd been hit!"
"Hey, Doc," he explained, "you see those two gentleman anywhere in sight now? Of course you don't. Punks like that think they're big shots when they got a gun, and I ain't about to try to wrestle a pistol out of some kid's hand. But inside they're scared to death. You just gotta convince them that it would be in their best interest to move on. I'm a good actor, dontcha think?"
"Yes, Gus," I admitted. "You're a very good actor. You all are."
Gus turned to the crowd and hollered, "Last Stop, everyone, Magic Isle, Last Stop of the night."
And with that, it seemed that the play, our play, was over.
I watched them turn back into residents. They looked at each other; they looked at me. Their clothes all put them back 30 years or more, all except mine. I couldn't help but look new, and young. I'm not sure they had any idea what I was or who I was, but they did the most peculiar thing. Gus's brother quietly talked to many of them, pointing at me repeatedly. They lined up, actors and audience, each wanting a turn to say something to me. Even those who had gotten off the trolley earlier returned. I had sworn that I heard, several times the word "purchasing". Turns out I was correct.
One man smiled. He said, "I got off at 37th Street. That's where my girl lives. You do purchasing, right? Thanks for the toilet paper and food. We ain't had any new tables or chairs in the lunchrooms for 10 years. The nurse told me that. You gotta start ordering some. OK?"
Interesting. I should have known there was more to the job.
The pregnant girl said, "Thank god I got to the hospital in time. You know these trolleys are an amazing invention."
Rose came up, warmly held my hand and bubbled, "Gus proposed to me!"
A woman with a wig in her hand said, "I was Jazzy's Momma today. I think he's real happy to see his momma again. I hear he talks about her all the time. Purchasing, is it? I'll see you tomorrow at 9:30 sharp. We'll be in the lobby of Building three. We'll take you on a little tour. Bring a pencil and paper."
I don't know why people say that when they see that I don't have a pencil and paper with me to write it down so I'll remember it.
Jazzy Jeff, still clearly back at age nine, shook my hand like a good little boy. I was beginning to understand a little of how Santa felt. "And what do you want, little boy?" I asked.
I saw the word flash across his eyes.
"Oh, no no, sorry!" I said.
"What??" he asked. "I ain't said nothing yet."
"We're not getting an elephant!" I told him.
Pouting, he replied, "I wasn't gonna say a elephant!"
'Was too,' I thought.
He started to think, and thought and thought, and forgot what he was doing, so walked off.
The next person was an orderly. "Can we talk about bedpans and beds and walkers sometime?" he asked. "Seriously."
"Of course," I said. "Come see me."
"Where's your office?" he asked.
I didn't know my room number so, in a very out-of-character move, I said, "Why don't you and I have lunch together in one of the cafeterias. I've never tried the food here."
"Well I have, so tomorrow's out. The stuffed peppers are deadly. Friday, OK?"
I nodded and we agreed on a building number. I picked 10 (10 fingers/10 toes, or was that building 20? Ugh.) We set a meeting time.
I heard a voice in the distance. It was Jazzy Jeff. He yelled "PEANUTS."
I'll have to see what I can do, just in case an elephant ever does visit.
The two I hadn't met, the Director and the Set Manager, came up with Nurse Engles in tow, and turned her over to me saying, "she did it."
"You did it, eh?" I asked her. "What exactly did you do?"
"Well maybe I need to explain to you that while this is a warehouse for the old, sick and dying, they're still alive. I talk to a lot of people in a day, and you'd be amazed how much something like a trolley had been a part of their lives. They are poor, they didn't have cars. Public transportation was important to them. Life-changing moments they remembered. Ever since we met, I've been walking around just saying "trolley car" to people, and often a story would come out. So many of them don't know where they are, but their long-term memories can be intact. I'm so glad I could give Jazzy one last time with his mother. I'm sure he'll remember it over and over. They were very close. And Rose's husband really did propose to her on a trolley, the one he drove! She's back there now, I'm sure. Very happy. You did a good thing with this, Jake."
"Um, my name's not Jake, it's Robert," I said.
"I see," she said, doing a very good job of stifling a laugh. "Next time you might consider telling everyone a little sooner."
Her face changed. Her head briefly nodded to my right. I turned to find my BB. He was standing there staring at me. His eyes were red; I swear it looked like he had been crying. He wasn't smiling. He said, "I understand that when this "thing" first arrived, you were unauthorized to, but still you sent out a memo suggesting to the staff that they bring residents out here."
"I've heard good things," he said. "Yes, there are many requests from residents who want to come out here and sit every day. Some just sit, and it makes them feel good. You've made a difference. The orderlies love it because the fresh air makes their residents sleep! Children who come to visit their parents often come out here with them. Some of them contact me, and they thank me. They tell me about how their parents are a little different sitting on these tired leather benches. And then I tell them about you; about how Jake found us a trolley car, because a few residents asked for one."
The little voice inside me told me to smile, nod, and keep my mouth shut. My larger brain never seems to listen. I said, "I was surprised to see you here tonight, Sir (I still didn't know his name), and even more surprised that you had a part to play."
He pulled a hanky out of his pants pocket and wiped his face. "Well, it's none of your business, but my father had a bad problem with alcohol. I'm sure he would often bother people in the same way. There was a trolley that used to pass our house, and often, if it got really late, my mother would ask me to find him. I'd walk a few blocks to the trolley stop and when it came along I'd get on. Usually I'd find him passed out somewhere in there, and would take him home. The driver was unusually patient with him, and probably got to see him more than we did. I appreciated that. It was all so real tonight, I was just caught up in the moment and ..."
Mid sentence, he walked off.
Nurse Engles had given me a little time with him when he appeared. Now she was back by my side.
"Well, do we get to keep it?" she asked.
"Well, he seems to be happy with it, so apparently so," I said.
"Oh, so he didn't tell you. I guess you should know - we're definitelykeeping it," she said. "You see, somehow (insert eye twinkle here) The Trolley Car Museum of New York found out about his little acquisition."
I tried my best to raise my eyebrows. "His little acquisition?"
She continued. "Do you know what this is? It's a New York City Transit PCC Streetcar, made in 1950."
"Yes," I said. "All of that is on the information plate near the back. So?"
"The Museum has one of the two surviving PCC Cars from NYC. They were thrilled that a third had been found. They had a nice dinner for him last evening, gave him a little plaque identifying him as a VIP who supports preserving the city's heritage and history. Of course, that was because he donated it to the Museum."
My heart sank. "Donated? Seriously? Crap."
"It's all good," she said. "It stays here. The Museum will have a little sign here indicating that this trolley is on loan from them. Now that it's theirs, they're going to be fixing it up, adding some sound effects; maybe she'll even get a coat of paint. Plus, of course, his "award" will go in the main lobby of the Administration Building. Oh, right, youknow the Administration Building. The only building you had ever been in?"
"That was then, not now," I protested. "I talk walks often, and I talk to people. Sometimes I even find things that will make this place a little better. Thanks for giving me that," I said to her.
I slipped my hand around her waist, pulled her close, kissed her red lips, and we walked away hand in hand. (In fact, we just stood two feet apart and watched the crowd disperse.)
I looked around, wanting to soak this moment in. "I just don't want this day to end," I said to her and smiled.
She smirked. "Wow, you don't get any memos, do you?" she asked. "We did something good for 15 of our actors tonight (whether they knew they were actors or not), and for 15 more audience members, with the help of dozens of others who were happy to assist. Many of them won't remember it in the morning, but we can only hope the glow will still be with them. But you need to be here tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," I asked. "Why?"
"There's a show tomorrow," she said casually. "They are writing scripts day and night. Each day, another group of actors get to relive their Trolley Car memories. Each day, a new audience is invited. There's a lot of residents here Jake, um, Robert. You should get that number for yourself sometime."
"Each day?" I asked. "How many shows are there going to be?"
She pulled a list on paper out of her lab coat and said, "so far we're booked through November 23."
I felt the warm August breeze blow against my face, and for the first time in many years I felt pretty good. I did return the next night, and every night after that. I only had a bit part, but I got pretty good at it. Four of us did every show - Gus, Rose, Gus's fake brother, and me.
When I'm old and failing, they have to put me here, and the trolley just has to be here. It has to. If not for them, then just let me relive thismoment one more time.
Being outside this time of night felt good! It's been awhile since I've felt some decent evening air on my face. Rather than heading back to my office or car, I just started to walk. Actually, for this night it could have been skipping instead of walking. As I walked away, I paused and looked at the back lawn of Building #2. So much beautiful green grass, and so big! I walked to the trees at the back of the lawn, counting my steps. I estimated that distance at 360 feet. I wondered who could hit a homer that far in this place. I could see where I was going to put the bases, see the back fence, and see the home and away team benches.
They say writing your second proposal is easier than the first. I won't need much. Batter up!
The Next Day (if you're interested)
I came in the front door of the Administration Building, heading for my office. The place was a mess; carpenters were putting a new shelf and new lighting into our display case, where a collection of old awards to the Home for good service were kept. Soon, there would be a center shelf, specially lit, with a new award on it. I spotted a modest plaque on the carpenter's cart, and walked over to read it. "In Appreciation for Recognizing the Importance of the History of the City of New York, The Trolley Car Museum of New York Hereby Recognizes Albert Engles blah blah blah.
All I could do was shake my head.
(I'm starting to understand that, in the game of chess, all of the pieces may feel pretty important to be on the board (I'm sure the King has a very big head), and may not even appreciate whether they are a rook or a pawn. But there is, in fact, on every board, only one Queen.)
The Last Track
There is more to the story, so I guess I'll share. Make a note of this. If you ever get a chance, find several hundred people with nothing to do and give them a topic to think about. First it was the (mega)play that never ended, because so many people had stories and ideas. Then it was their comments on purchasing.
One day I was making my (new) rounds and I passed a resident on the phone, talking to the Acme Vegetable Distributors; I recognized the name from my P.O. copies. This woman told them she was the mayor and was tired of peas. I sat down on the floor, leaning against the wall, and waited until she finished the call. She turned around, as though she actually knew I was waiting, pulled out a pencil and steno pad (which they all seemed to now have) and made the neatest table.
line col 1 col 2 col 3
1. peas suck $84/dL
2. wax beans good $64/dL
3. Tetley tea good $45/5000 bags
4. Lipton tea good $39/5000 bags
and on it went.
She pointed to the word peas and made a gagging sound, then pointed to wax beans and made an 'mmmmmm' sound. She pointed to the two lines on teabags, shrugged, then crossed off the Tetley tea line. Apparently she could only talk with a phone in her ear. She had 10 items in her table which she presented, then handed to me.
As I met with people, often residents who just would flag me down, it just continued to puzzle me. They didn't just ask for things, they were negotiating. They wanted some new furniture. They'd already had someone stop by to give us (them) an estimate, a second-hand shop, to buy our old stuff. They were willing to make some sacrifices, did some smart shopping, replaced stuff they hated with cheaper alternatives, they even proposed a slightly modified cable TV package. Some ideas were from the staff but most were not. I think this is the generation that went through so much. They learned how to not have much, how to be poor. They had to get good at pinching pennies. They don't spend without thinking. They are lifelong negotiators. They have lived their lives as today's people don't.
One morning I rifled through my secretary's desk and found that her name was (still) Phyllis. When she came in I was right at her door.
"Phyllis," I proudly said. "I need your help."
"Really?" she said, sounding authentically intrigued.
I reached into my jacket, the one that I wear every day, and pulled out a piece of paper.
"I want you to cancel our order for peas with Acme Vegetable Distributors and ask for an equivalent amount in wax beans. If the order isn't for less money, let me know."
I pulled a piece of paper out and 18 fell on the floor. It was going to be a long meeting.
We talked. It was nice. She is very smart and understands my job like I never will. She knows not only what we do but why. She helped me, when she could have let me make a terrible mess. Each item had more facets than I could have guessed. She knew.
(Incidentally, it's not that I don't like talking to people, I just can't stand"small talk". This was no small talk. Phyllis was always focused and on topic. Intelligent conversation - what a concept!)
We met for seven days straight and when we were both happy, I asked her to write a report summarizing what we were doing. I told her that it has to have both of our names on it. She was pleased with that. She hand-distributed it to all of the administrators. My boss came to see me before the ink was dry.
"I don't understand," he said. "Where did all of this come from? You can't just change the food we buy without working with the nutritionists!"
"All taken care of," I said. "There will be no complaints from them. (Thank you Phyllis.) Besides, if nobody eats peas, but they'll eat wax beans, we'll buy wax beans!"
"And some of these line items are long term contracts, some Inegotiated. Take the Cable Company. You can't just ..." he protested.
"Oh, we can now. We gave them two choices - modify the contract or we'll walk. Things have changed in the past few years. Buyer's market," I explained.
"New food, new furniture, equipment, and the new budget will be 9% less? Is this some sort of math slight-of-hand?" he asked.
"I had help," I said.
"Well whatever you did, keep it up!" he smiled.
"If we can continue to save as we update our equipment, we'll eventually get to a point where we can maintain for a few years. That is when we will realize impressive savings," I explained.
"I do have an item or two that was too personal to be on the list," I continued. "I seriously make too much money so I'd like my salary to be lowered by 10%."
"Did you find Jesus or something?" he asked.
"No, and actually, I've already talked to H.R. about it and they're preparing the paperwork. I also took the liberty of looking at pay scales, and I'm requesting that Phyllis be promoted to a level 12 Office Assistant. My change in salary will just cover that."
He stared at me like we'd just met (essentially, we had), like we were strangers (we were).
"And what about me? You didn't write me in?" he asked.
"Well not yet," I explained, "but if you don't mind getting out of your office more, there's lots of work that needs to be done. We should talk."
"You want to give me work to do?" he smiled.
I nodded. It was probably rude but I needed the help. These residents are an unruly and demanding group.
"You want my job, don't you?" he asked.
"No, no no," I said. "I just want you to help me make this place the best it can be. Sorry, I'm just a little late in getting on board."
He smiled. (I'm assuming he didn't realize that "getting on board" was a bit of a trolley car joke.)
"I'll take it!"
After my boss left, I wondered whether I would ever experience such a high again in my life. My mind drifted back to the play. Every night, I take on this role of homeless man who was a doctor (I'm assuming). I check Guss's breathing, and am relieved to find he is still alive. Every night he closes the show by announcing the same thing - "Last Stop, everyone, Magic Isle, Last Stop of the night." I need to remember to start asking around and see if that's the name the residents or staff have given this place, or if it is just something Guss came up with. Actually, maybe I won't. I don't need details. Guss is certainly right, and it certainly is. We're all at the right place, just where we should be. And we're all very lucky dogs.