The Night Mr. Toy spoke with me
The Norfolk and Southern with its precious cargo of salt is hooting through the flats at about 15 mph per hour, 150,000 times beyond the speed required for me to fall into the stupor my insomnia cocktail is designed to induce. I don't mind listening to it, the sound is a comfort of sorts and there's a patter of rain on the roof.
I grew-up by the train tracks on Wrong Island, near the LIRR's "Route of the Dashing Commuter ..." that was the company's moniker at a time when hauling ass into NYC to make a living was all about keeping up with the Joneses.
The island was cheap living back then and a person making $25 grand a year lived well, if they made the train on time, brief case flying, necktie flying. The commuters had a bar car for the return trip and few people dashed home.
We lived half a block from the tracks and one night while I was listening to Coltrane's "Live at Birdland" the house rocked and the record skipped an entire five minute solo. Commuter trains shared the track with freight and there was a coal chute and a lumber mill with a sideyard for each right near our place.
Turns out a locomotive hauling a bunch of timber had derailed; it made for quite a scene because it went off-track in the darkest part of that stretch between the Suffolk Coal and Fuel Co. and the Bay Shore Lumber Yard -- the latter where I learned to shoot hook shots on a netless rim out back of the hardware store. George Raynor taught me. He was a friend of my brother and he shot the hook like George Mikan, very old school. Raynor could bank 10-15 twenty-foot hooks in a row through that rusty old rim and I later perfected the shot but I never had good enough lift to pull off a grand Kareem sky hook or Magic Johnson baby hook, but it stayed in my limited arsenal, along with a love of the hugger-mugger under the boards. I was fearless under there and didn't mind hacking opponents or wrestling hard for rebounds.
I don't know how they got that train back onto the tracks before the morning commuters came zipping by every 15 minutes, but I do remember standing outside in the dark looking at the rescue team lights; it was the only time I was ever really alone with Mr. Toy, a jazz pianist from Harlem who lived in the airless hut of an apartment behind my dad's carpentry shop next to our house. Mr. Toy was a slightly built, very soft-spoken man, almost oriental in features and in sharp contrast to his wife, Annie Mae, whom he met in a Harlem night club where she was a full-bore blues singer. Booze, cigarettes and belting out tunes at the top of her lungs left her with a loud if croaky voice. I loved her.
Mr. Toy was maybe five-foot-eight; Annie was broad shouldered, almost mannish, an even six-foot and claimed to be half-Cherokee. She wore mumus and drank Four Roses from a kitchen tumbler full of ice and Mr. Toy sipped White Rock Ginger Ale, the one with the little water nymph kneeling over a glade on a green bottle. He did not like to share his soda when I came to visit, and Annie would browbeat him until he let me have a bottle. As a boy, it didn't hit the spot: I was a Coca Cola kid and my teeth are proof of that.
Anyway, out in the dark, I was trying to be cool with Mr. Toy, who could play almost any tune by ear -- and he did now and then on our spinette piano. I told him I was listening to John Coltrane -- THE John "Coal Train" -- when the engine derailed. I thought that was pretty clever for a 14-year old, only it wasn't a coal train, it was a lumber train. Mr. Toy listened to my jive and smiled wearily, his soft face half lit from the night light outside our place; he'd had three heart attacks and Annie had given him two of them and except at the piano, his movements were slow and methodical.
I was telling Mr. Toy about the solo Coltrane was playing when the accident happened -- a take-off on "A Few of My Favorite Things" -- and I was playing up how hard the man blew his horn and the changes he took into another zone, but I wasn't getting the reaction I was hoping for. Mr. Toy simply said "That's a nice song. But I don't know nothin' about that progressive stuff, it's not my thing." It was the longest sentence I'd ever heard him say. I blushed. I asked him what was his thing, as if jazz were one thing and if you knew any part of it, you must know all of it. He said, "Oh, I'm a stride player. Old stuff. Ballads, standards, not any of that Be-Bop or progressive business."
It got quiet. It was winter early and dark and Dad wasn't home yet which meant he was probably over at the Ebb Tide or the Vet's bar. I asked Mr. Toy if he wanted me to walk King, their doberman-shepherd and he said nah, there was too much going on "out there" -- meaning the hubbub around the train wreck and King would get all excited and he was right, but I heard him barking the whole time and I said "well, I'll just go over and visit him for a while then."
He lived tied to a big pine tree and was so happy for company every time I visited him he would pee. Mr. Toy and I walked into his yard through the anchor gate fence and he said good night and I hung-out with King for a while, calming him and just being his pal. Then I went home and my own dog, The Beef, smelt him on me and growled. Those two never got along.
The Beef actually got hit by a commuter train chasing my mom to the corner store where she got her smokes, a place just on the other side of the tracks. It just grazed him though and flipped him off to the side like a little bull; he was a tough old mutt. But he couldn't lick King, not that he didn't try every chance he got.
-- Sept 15, 2014 ...Round about midnight ...