Steve Katz

I was fifteen when my father died. He’d been sick for seven years already, was rarely home, usually bedridden in some dreary veterans hospital in the Bronx, or upstate at some rest home. That was treatment for a heart condition at the time—stay in bed! Without a father to help me into my future I felt like upcoming life had been placed on the other side of a thick high concrete wall too slippery to scale, and I couldn’t bust through it, but against it I constantly pressed the enigmas of my rising adolescence.

Mr. Jacobs, who was the father of my classmate, Vernon, and his little brother, Hubby, was office manager of an import-export company, Amtria (American/Austrian) Trading Company. Because he took pity on me, or maybe sought to take advantage of me, he gave me a job at the Broad Street office on Saturdays and on some late afternoons. It was probably illegal for them to hire a fifteen year old.

I was a gofer, a messenger, the kid to blame when things went wrong, generally an office boy. If coffee spilled, I wiped it up. I opened envelopes. I stuffed envelopes. If a file was missing, I hunted it down. I cleaned windows, tidied the desks. My favorite task was to leave on a postal trip, or to deliver a document, or to buy office supplies, just so I could get out into the population on the streets.

That winter the canyons of Wall and Broad Streets were cold, full of snow and slush, winds that cut like knives. I sloshed around in galoshes, kept the papers dry under my mackinaw, moved invisibly among invisible people breathing ghosts into the air. I walked past the steps of the stock exchange, rested at the foot of skyscrapers. Everyone inside the buildings looked competent and busy, in identical suits and ties, women prim and neutral. It was on one of the most frigid, blizzard days that I discovered coffee. Returning to the office after a delivery, I let the wind blow me into a Chock Full O’ Nuts. All praise goes to William Black, who founded this chain of black-owned businesses, and to the great Jackie Robinson, who signed on as personnel manager. I straddled and settled down on one of the stools at the counter. It was all blue and yellow in there, and it smelled of coffee and sugar. The waitress, a light brown woman with straightened hair streaked with blonde, asked me what I wanted. I hadn’t thought about it, didn’t even know why I was in there. “Regular coffee?” she asked after I didn’t respond. I heard someone else order a light coffee, so I said “Light.” “What else?” “A donut,” I said. I was proud to get that out. “Whole wheat?” “Yeah.” “Sugared?” I nodded affirmative. The storm mixed it up outside, snow blowing horizontally down the canyons. People skidded on the sidewalks, were whipped akimbo, out of control in the wind. I felt warm, snug in the Chock Full O’ Nuts. I wanted to return to the office never.

The waitress brought my donut and my first cup of coffee. I checked the other people at the counter, sipping comfortably. The cup was heavy. The cream swirled through the dark liquid. The acrid smell was a tough barrier. I tried to sip, but it was too hot. The waitress who seemed to know I was a virgin, enjoyed watching me. “Put some sugar in it, sweetheart.” She dumped in some sugar from the dispenser, then heaped my teaspoon, handed it to me, and I dropped in more.

It was cool enough now to taste. The sweetness made it familiar and welcome, the bitterness gave it an edge and mystery, the cream and the warmth made it feel like protection from the cutting slants of wind on the street. Perfect! I bit the donut. It was soft and crunchy. I haven’t tasted anything like it since. The world looked great. My first cup of coffee was beyond delicious. The clutter of storm outside flew down the street on wings of jubilation. “Good stuff, huh, sweetheart.” “Thanks,” I said. I laid down a tip and stepped out to part the wind. The snow melted off my face. I headed back to the office, ready for anything.

Near the termination of my career with Amtria Trading Company the office called and asked me to come in on a Sunday. They were moving, and needed me to help with the furniture. I had sprained an ankle shooting hoops in the schoolyard, and didn’t feel ready to do heavy work, not on a Sunday. I told them about my injury, and that I wouldn’t be in for a week. When I did return Vernon’s father greeted me with my pay envelope, which contained a pink slip. “You have outlived your usefulness with us,” he said. The shock backed me into a seat. I was fired. It was the first time I had ever been hired, and now I was fired.

I left the office. It was my last day on Broad Street. I headed for the Chock Full O’ Nuts. The waitress recognized me and brought a light coffee and a whole wheat donut, and I sat there like a workingman with the workingman’s blues. I was fifteen years old, and I had outlived my usefulness. How was it possible? I drank the coffee. This time it made me a little jittery. The donut was good. I was dizzy. Fifteen years old. Outlived my usefulness. I’d read Dylan Thomas. I’d read T. S. Eliot. I’d read Archibald Macleish. Do not go gentle, must not mean but be, this is the way the world ends. It was then the first time I ever realized I would have to be a writer. If you are fifteen, and have already outlived your usefulness, you’d better wise up and become a writer. There was nothing else I could do.