Michael Fitzpatrick, a playwright and journalist from Lucan, Co Dublin, lives in New York with his wife, Mei, a nurse practitioner at a Manhattan hospital, and their three children, 11-year-old Liam, eight-year-old Emmett and five-year-old Fiona
It may have been the unmistakable clink of my Zippo that got his attention, distracting him from his search for discarded cigarette butts. It was a humid late summer's afternoon outside Gaelic Park, New York's GAA headquarters, on 240th Street and Broadway. I'd a minute's peace before the venue began to empty. Homeward hordes headed to Woodlawn, Sunnyside and beyond to discuss their day and plan their night.
Before the spillage – a trickle first, then a deluge of Sunday’s sports fans – I’d time for a smoke. Then I’d shoot down to Union Square, where the newspaper’s office was located. I’d type up reports for the day’s games before hoping something major, preferably Irish, would happen, to grace our front page. Then we’d put the paper to bed and grab a late pint at a Lower East Side tavern.
Sometimes I'd get a ride from Kerry John, Pat from Longford or Monaghan's Peter, who might discuss the day's games, just as they did, decades before, in their pre-immigrant days, in the halls, bars and clubs of Tralee, Newtownforbes or Clones. That Sunday, though, it was the subway – but first an unforgettable encounter. He approached me as I sparked up. Cautious, as he'd no doubt been told to get lost many times, whether asking for smokes, food or change. Still, I could tell he was new to the meaner side of the city's streets.
One arm was concealed by a threadbare trenchcoat draped over a stooping shoulder. It was a coat that once would not have looked out of place on Peter Falk's Columbo, or Peter Sellers's Clouseau
While his eyes were tired and sad, his hair unkempt and beard untended, a still-muscular torso semi-filled out his almost-clean T-shirt. A taut bicep stretched one sleeve, while his other arm was concealed by a threadbare trenchcoat draped over a stooping shoulder.
It was a coat that once would not have looked out of place on Peter Falk's Columbo, or Peter Sellers's Clouseau. Majestic on the broader shoulders of a previous owner, perhaps, out of place on a homeless man, especially in 90-degree New York City weather.
In minutes, the street would be swarming with sports fans, clad in their county colours, as another day of football and hurling had wound down. For that one moment, though, this tiny corner of the Bronx was ours.
I handed him a few smokes and looked in my wallet. I’d a five and three ones. I needed the singles for my subway fare, so I gave him the five. I had access to other fives; I doubt he did. With an appreciative smile, he peered straight at me, and uttered two words that have haunted me ever since. “Thanks, Mike.”
Simple words I’d heard many times on my American odyssey. When bartending, handing over creamy pints of stout to businessmen in midtown Manhattan or passing Old Fashioneds or whatever the martini-du-jour was to trilby-wearing hipsters in the numbered streets of Brooklyn. Chilled Sauvignon Blancs to the fashionistas of Sixth Avenue. “Thanks, Mike.”
I’d hear it on construction sites, handing a drill to a colleague, or when I’d grab the back of a 200lb sofa as we wedged it into a service elevator on the way to the hopelessly double-parked, hopefully unticketed truck, when I worked as a mover.
He had an accent thicker than my own, and he knew me by name.
I like to think that I'd just caught him on a bad day and that Paul, the serious chap from Dublin, is okay now, home with his family. Flourishing, rather than floundering. Still reading the papers, enjoying a smoke
Then, in seconds, he was gone. Lost in the sea of county colours. I stood there, bewildered, wondering what it was that I’d just witnessed. I fought an urge to be sick, as it dawned on me. I knew this lad. I’d worked with him. We’d bought one another coffees, laughed at the same jokes, before our paths had unwound and shot forward in, it would appear, vastly different directions.
The coffees and laughter had long-gone, and now he had too, again. I wasn’t quick enough to call him back, to chat, share a smoke, to see if I could help him. He was all I could think about on the way home.
His name was Paul. I’d worked with him briefly in my construction days. A quiet guy, never hung over on a Monday, or calling out sick the morning after payday. Head down, straight to work, every day. On Wednesdays, he’d have the Irish papers, reading them in the van, or on his break.
Admittedly, he’d barely crossed my mind in the years since. I’d stronger memories of Rob, Bill, Macker, Tommy, English Andy, Red Mick, the Mexican lads; Javier, Raul and Miguel.
I like to think that I'd just caught him on a bad day and that Paul, the serious chap from Dublin, is okay now, home with his family. Flourishing rather than floundering. Still reading the papers, enjoying a smoke.
He's most likely not.
I've searched since, of course. Social media, Irish death notices, New York's funeral announcements, the 'Potter's Field' on Hart Island, but how many Pauls from Dublin are there? Occasionally, I scan the faces panhandling outside Penn Station, settling under cardboard at Grand Central, on benches in Washington Square Park.
I quit smoking long ago, but that Zippo lighter is still around somewhere. I'll find it and offer it to the next guy. the next Paul, and hope he doesn't thank me by name.
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