EVENTUALLY each man seeks an oasis. These take many forms and run a range from the simple palm-and-date affairs to such complex arrangements, both physical and psychological, that they truly defy explanation. Take the case of what happened to Charlie Murchison one cold winter night not long ago.
Charlie works on the swing shift at an outfit that loads cross-country trucks for long trips into outer darkness. He doesn't really load them himself, since Charlie is what the papers always call a while-collar worker. What he does is see that the right stuff is loaded into the right trucks so that some outfit in Mobile doesn't wind up with a 10-ton pile of Flexible Flyers when what they really wanted was 1500 gross of lantern wicks.
Until midnight Charlie sits at his desk and checks loading slips against order forms. It is a good job and Charlie likes it, because from time to time it gives him a few hours in which to just sit and read. Charlie loves reading, in fact his wife is always hollering at him to read in better light or he'll ruin his eyes. He usually picks things to read by looking at a couple of pages of the book, and if it looks good he takes the book out of the library and just reads it as it comes. This is a pretty good system and Charlie has read some fine stuff. Once in a while he fishes up a lemon this way, but by and large it works out well. Anyway, on the night in question Charlie got off work 15 or 20 minutes earlier than usual because there wasn't much doing and the relief man had come in early. Charlie got in his Plymouth and headed for the East River Drive, which was the way he got back to the Bronx every night after work. This place where he worked was on the far West Side downtown near Canal Street. A pretty crummy neighborhood, but then you don't load trucks on Park Avenue. He usually went up Sixth Avenue to 14th and then cut over east to the Drive. He invariably went straight home. Tonight, however, Charlie was thirsty for a beer, and he had a couple of spare minutes. He swung in to the curb near a tavern that didn't look very impressive and where he could pick up a quick cheap beer.
It was a Monday evening, and Charlie was quite surprised to see what a crowd this spot had for so late at night. It was sort of dark and there were people sitting at small tables around a small stage that didn't really look like a stage. More like a knocked-together wooden platform. On top of this affair were a couple of musicians. A piano man, a guy on drums, and a pretty good tenor. Charlie thought that a little music would go well with a beer, especially if it didn't jack up the check. A guy steered him to a table that was already crowded but which had an empty chair next to a tall thin broad wearing a black sweater. She looked kind of sad. But it might have been because she was with a guy who had a beard and who Charlie spotted as a nasty character right off. Egotistical as hell and insulting in an odd way.
Just as Charlie sat down, he noticed that there was another guy standing up near a microphone next to the stand. He was speaking in a rough voice that was hard to understand, and he seemed to be mad at someone. As he read from the paper he held in his hand, he kept running his other hand through his hair, and from time to time he would pull his dirty sweater-shirt down over his belt buckle.
Tried to Hear
Charlie tried to hear what the guy was saying, but the crowd at his table, who seemed to have papers too, were a pretty noisy bunch constantly making cracks about the poor guy who was trying to read. Not only that, but Charlie couldn't understand why they seemed to hate the bird at the mike so. He had a devil of a time hearing. The band kept playing while the guy talked, and that didn't help much either. He did hear some of it though. The man kept repeating something like:
"You talk to me of love
"You speak of hate
"A girl screams on 14th Street
"And the seagull dies at dawn!"
He said the last line at least 10 times in a loud voice. When he stopped, he looked around sort of mad at the crowd which applauded. He walked right past Charlie and sat at the table behind him, and all of a sudden the gang at Charlie's table seemed to get friendly with the man who had just read. At least they kept telling him how good the stuff had been. Charlie couldn't really understand how they knew since it is pretty hard to listen and talk at the same time. Charlie couldn't figure any of it out, anyway, because what he had heard the guy read hadn't been good for anything but laughs. He finished his beer and gave the waiter a buck just as one of the guys at his own table was going up to the microphone.
On the way home he got to thinking about whether he should tell his wife about where he had been, but decided against it since she probably wouldn't understand.