Toward the end of my teen-age stint as a writer for DC Comics, I took a part-time job washing dishes at a restaurant.
It wasn’t that DC wouldn’t give me all the work I could handle and fill every minute of my time—the fact is that working for Mort Weisinger was killing me. His abusive keep-the-creators-under-his-thumb editorial “style” had worn me down.
Early on, when the big, important man (said he) called me from New York to yell at me about every little flaw and mistake in my latest script I felt terrible. After four years of this, I’d finally figured out that DC wouldn’t keep sending me checks if what I did wasn’t any good, and Mort’s rants about what a moron I was for misspelling a word or some such became just noise. Grating, irritating noise. Mort still made writing comics a pain, an ordeal—even if he no longer had the ability to make me feel bad about myself.
I found myself less and less interested in the work, less and less enthused about doing something, that at first, I loved. My productivity fell off steadily.
So I looked for something, anything else to do to make some money for my family. Options are limited when you’re eighteen. So, that year, and for several years after quitting DC, whenever any creative work I got wasn’t steady enough, I took various less glamorous jobs.
Washing dishes at the Viking Restaurant in Banksville, just through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and down the road a ways from Pittsburgh, I met Sam, a fellow kitchen grunt. We became friends.
At one point, I needed in the worst way to make a long distance call and had no money for the pay phone. Sam gave me his last five bucks with days to go till payday. As long as I live, no matter what I ever do for Sam, there’s no way I can ever repay that five bucks. You can’t give more than all.
After a while, I noticed that the owner was shorting my paycheck. Sam showed me his. Same thing. Sam, no math whiz, probably never would have noticed.
The owner stopped deducting non-existent taxes from my check (Pittsburgh had no city income tax), but counting on Sam’s ignorance of such things, she kept screwing him.
We decided to quit. We waited till Saturday, when there was a big event in both the upstairs and downstairs party rooms, a full bar and a crowd in the main dining room. We let the dishes pile up, and when the owner came to shriek at us and demand we do the dishes, Sam flipped her his towel and said, “You do ‘em.” We walked out.
We celebrated by splurging on roast beef sandwiches at the Arby’s down the street. Too much money to spend, really, but….
That was the last time I saw Sam for a long time.
Years later, when I was somewhat more prosperous, I was driving to West Mifflin to visit a friend and for some reason took a circuitous route through an unfamiliar part of town. I saw a Marine hitchhiking. I rarely pick up hitchhikers, but, what the hell, he was a serviceman. My daddy, having been a soldier, used to give servicemen hitchhiking a lift, if he could. So I pulled over, and the guy got in.
It was Sam! I didn’t recognize him at first. Sam was the cartoon hippy last time I saw him. Now, a Marine?! Sam explained the he had joined up because they said they’d teach him how to be a baker.
Seemed to me there might be an easier way, but, okay….
His mother was sick. Very sick. He’d gotten a 24 hour pass to come and visit her.
Sam was stationed in Philadelphia, some 300 miles away. The bus ride to Pittsburgh had eaten up a third of his time. He’d have only a few hours with her at best before he’d have to catch the last possible bus back.
I drove him to his mother’s house and stayed there with him so I could drive him to the bus station. To give him the maximum time home with mom.
Time came to leave for the bus. Sam couldn’t do it. We stayed.
Finally, once his mother was asleep and Sam’s sister was there to stay with her, we left. No way to get him to Philly except to drive him, so I did. Got him there around two AM. Late. But he climbed the fence around back, picking his way through the razor wire on top, so he wouldn’t be caught AWOL.
Then I drove back to the ‘Burgh and went to work at my day job—reconditioning cars at McMillen and Baer Volkswagen. That was a long, weary day….
Sam’s mother died very soon thereafter. But at least he’d had a chance to say good-bye.
So, I paid off a couple cents of that five bucks….
I wonder, what are the odds that I would be driving through a strange neighborhood I had no reason being in, that I would give a lift to a serviceman on some whim driven by the fact that my father had been a soldier, and therefore trusted soldiers, and also that I had the time and wherewithal to do what I did.
Sam needed me, and there I was, however unlikely, however it came to pass.
After that, again, for a long time, Sam and I fell out of touch.
Years later, in 1976, I went through a traumatic breakup with a woman, JW, I really, truly loved. My fault. I let it slip away. When it was finally over for sure, that night I couldn’t sleep. Lying awake at four o’clock in the morning, I decided to go to the office. Do some work. Try to force out the hurt by focusing on something else.
I arrived at the Marvel offices around five AM, as opposed to my usual 7 or 7:30. For some reason, I sat down at a desk out in the big editorial room, rather than in my own office. The phone on the desk I had randomly chosen rang.
If you called Marvel in 1976, you reached the reception desk. At 5 AM, with no receptionist present, you would have gotten no answer. You could dial a staffer directly, if you knew the extension.
So who was calling the person at whose desk I was sitting at that hour?
It was Sam.
Sam was out of the Marines by then and worked at a bakery in Tulsa. I asked him what made him call at 5 AM. Well, he said, he’d just gotten done making the donuts and was thinking about me, so he gave me a call.
But it’s 5 AM, I said. How did you know…? What made you think I’d be at work? For that matter, how did you know I worked at Marvel Comics?!
There was no way he could even have known I’d moved to New York!
Sam had no idea it was 5 AM my time. I don’t think he knew or cared much about time zones. He knew I wrote comics, so he called Marvel. Is there some other kind, he asked? He didn’t know Marvel was in New York. Anyway, he thought he’d call, and, sure enough, I was there, right? So…what’s wrong with being right?
I asked him where he got the number he’d called. Directory assistance, he said. He didn’t have anything to write it down with, and he was afraid he’d screw up dialing it, but nope.
Directory assistance would give you Marvel’s main number, I said. How did he get this particular extension? “I don’t know,” said Sam.
So, he asked me what was wrong. Not, what’s doin’, not how are you. What’s wrong? I told him.
Sam may be math challenged, and he might not grok time zones, and he thought joining the Marines might be a good way to learn how to be a baker, but in a very fundamental, common sense way, he’s the wisest man I’ve ever known. After listening to my sad tale he said these words: “She didn’t love you enough.”
Well…all righty, then, there it is, isn’t it?
It didn’t make it all better, but…it sure gave me a new perspective. True. And better to find that out sooner rather than later. The first step to getting over JW.
So we talked for a while, promised to call each other and maybe visit sometime. Never happened for one reason or another.
I needed Sam, and there he was, however unlikely, however it came to pass.
It’s weirder than you think. I scoured the place after I hung up, to make sure no one else was there who might have answered the receptionist’s phone, known somehow which extension I was near and transferred the call. Nope. Nobody there but me.
Furthermore, Marvel Comics extensions had a different exchange than the main number. I don’t know why, but apparently that wasn’t an uncommon thing back then. So, the number directory assistance gave Sam was off by the three exchange digits as well as the four numbers that followed. All he got that was right was the area code.
I looked Marvel’s number up in the Manhattan directory just to be sure that the number Sam called wasn’t there for unfathomable reasons. Nope. I called directory assistance myself to see what numbers for Marvel were available. Only the main number.
And, oh, by the way, not that it made any difference, but there was a one-digit error in Marvel’s number in the phone book! A misprint! The book and directory assistance gave you a non-working number! Call that number (I did) and you got that screechy “We’re sorry, the call you made cannot be completed as dialed.”
I reported that to the financial guy who oversaw HR and other office management functions. Apparently, no one had ever checked.
I haven’t heard from Sam since.
As I said at the beginning of this personal X-Files series, I stated that I don’t believe in anything the existence of which has not been proven to my satisfaction. Not miracles, not ESP, not magic, not flying saucers, not ghosts….
And yet…some irrepressible notion in the back of my mind tells me that if, someday, Sam really needed me or I really needed him, there I’d be or there he’d be.
Absolutely true story.
My Girlfriend’s Dead Aunt Comes to Call
It happened one October night years later, 1992, to be exact. My girlfriend, let’s call her SF, and I were staying at her place. Sometime in the wee hours, we both suddenly, simultaneously woke up.
There was silence.
Then we heard someone in the hall outside the bedroom.
SF kept the bedroom door closed out of habit, left over from when she had an apartment mate in the second bedroom. The door latch, however, was broken, the legacy of a violent boyfriend who had once tried to kick in the sturdy, metal door to get at her, but only succeeded in damaging the latch hardware and hurting his foot. Good. Anyway, the door closed, but the taped-over latchbolt no longer held it closed. Push the door and it opened.
Ordinarily, adrenaline carries me to a state of fearlessness or extreme stupidity, depending on your point of view. Ordinarily, I would have quickly found a heavy item to hit with and gone to find out who or what the hell was out there. But this time, though my heart was pounding, I was frozen.
Irrationally afraid. So was SF.
We were clinging to each other like scared little kids.
The door swung open. A little light came in from the lights outside illuminating the apartment complex grounds. We could see that there was no one at the door.
But it felt like there was. Hard to explain, seeing nothing but knowing that someone or something is there.
The someone or something moved to the foot of the bed. Walked to the foot of the bed. We tracked its progress step by slow step in unison.
It stood there for what seemed like forever, but was probably only seconds.
Then it was gone. And, just like that we were no longer afraid. More than relieved, in fact. Comforted. We quickly went back to sleep.
In the morning, SF told me that two years earlier, on that very day, she and her boyfriend at the time had gone to visit her aunt, who also lived in Manhattan, and found her dead.
The aunt never liked that boyfriend.
SF told me that a year earlier on the anniversary of her aunt’s death, she had also awakened suddenly during the night and felt scared. It passed quickly. She was alone at the time.
She thought it was her aunt checking up on the kind of company she was keeping.
I guess I passed muster. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t.
MONDAY: ULTIMATE COMICS – All-New Spider-Man #1 Dissected and Analyzed