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The Greatest Escape by Bruce Harris Bentzman
published in Volume 2, Issue 5 on November 8th, 1995

Normally my tour at Con Edison finishes at midnight. This wasn't a normal night, but then this is New York where anything that smacks of being normal is banned. This city is the fertile soil for the unusual. Only the seed of the world's unusual can take root here and blossom here. The rest either run away or are worn away. I was born in New York and I'm still here.

My relief didn't arrive at midnight like he was suppose to, so I called the supervisor. Apparently Jim, the night tour guy -- my name is Arnie, or Arnold, which ever is easier for you -- anyway, Jim got sick at the last moment, possibly a heart attack, so his wife took him to the hospital. We later learned it was nothing but heartburn. My supervisor went down the list before he could find someone to cover and they took a while getting in. So I ended up riding the subway home at a very late hour.

At three o'clock in the morning my car of the train was without conventional passengers. A young couple passed through the car, their hair bizarrely cut and standing on end. They wore black leather cycle jackets decorated with chromed chains. An elderly waitress, still in uniform and determined not to smile, passed through my car while clutching her purse. She was making her way closer to the conductor, changing cars at each stop.

Only four passengers remained with me in my car. A skinny white guy, not dressed warm enough for the cold, was huddled in the far corner. He was forever reaching into baggy pants with those thin arms scratching and picking at God knows what. His problem, imaginary or not, had him dancing and jerking and keeping him from sleep.

There was an old white woman not having any trouble sleeping, curled up against her several plastic bags filled with garbage that must have been her worldly possessions. She sat with her back to me, but I had noticed when I got on that she was missing a leg from the knee down, and this made me feel very sorry for her. She and the itchy guy probably lived here at night, on the subway. I was in their bedroom.

The two remaining passengers were both Blacks -- I'm a white guy, something you wouldn't know unless I told you. Anyway, the one sitting farthest from me was real tall. He wore a dark green trench coat and a fuzzy fedora with a ridiculously wide brim. It was also a shade of green and had a colorful, five inch feather in the band.

The black man sitting nearest to me, almost directly across from me, was drunk. You knew he was drunk because the stink of alcohol floated about his person. He was snoring, his body slumped forward, his head hovering just above his knees, his thighs supporting his forearms. His large hands and head bounced and bobbed with the movement of the train. While I was amusing myself with watching this little dance of his appendages, he suddenly jolted bolt upright.

It had startled me, but it seemed even more of a surprise to him. His bloodshot eyes were wide with shock. He had broad shoulders and a very powerful build. I couldn't tell if his face was scarred or just deeply wrinkled. Coarse hair grew on his cheeks and a glimmering drop of snot was precariously hanging from one wide nostril. At first his eyes did not seem to see. Then they began to focus on their environment, and, sure enough, they found me. They locked on me.

This big guy began to stand. With tremendous difficulty, he pulled his huge frame out of that seat using the adjacent pole, and I admit I was worried. Not that he was going to hurt me, big as he was, he was just plain too drunk to do that. I was afraid he was going to make a mess on me, that he might puke, or at the very least drip that hanging snot on me. With a push, he launched himself in my direction, swaying, coming most of the way, then stumbling a few steps backwards. The snot fell harmlessly to the floor and I was partially relieved. Finally he made the crossing, grasping the bar that ran over my head. After he was securely fastened he said, "Excuse me sir, but would you be so kind as to tell me where I am?"

"You're on the E, guy," I told him.

"The ee-guy?" he asked.

"No, the E, just the E," I said.

"I beg your pardon, but I am afraid I do not understand? I see we are on a train and that it must be night."

"That's right, guy," I said. "You're riding the subway between Lexington Avenue and the Twenty-third Street and Ely Avenue station."

"The subway!" he exclaimed, tossing his head from side to side to take it in. He seemed to be genuinely thrilled at finding himself on the subway. "I'm in New York! I made it! I did it!"

Being in New York did not strike me as much of an accomplishment, yet he was overwhelmed with his being there; mind you, we're not talking about arriving at Carnegie Hall, merely the subway. He stared at me again, his eyes about to pop out. "Please tell me, what is today's date?"

"March twenty-fifth -- no, the twenty-sixth," I informed him, while remembering the lateness of the hour. But no, he wanted to know the year? So I told him, 1982.

The news was too much for him. Upon learning the year he seemed to faint, his body twisting and falling. I put my hands out to keep him from falling on me, but he caught himself, swirled, and plopped into the adjacent seat. I noticed the man in the fuzzy fedora was watching us and grinning. The drunk next to me was breathing heavy, as if exhausted, and mumbling New York and the year over and over. Once more he turned his attention to me and announced, "I did it,"

"Did what, exactly?" I asked.

"I'm alive." With that he looked at his big hands with their dirty fingernails. Once more his expression became one of shock and he gasped, "Schvartse". He looked at me in alarm. "My God, I am a Negro," he said.

"Comes as a surprise, does it?"

He rose from his seat with unexpected grace and confidence. "Permit me to introduce myself," he announced in a booming voice that filled the car. While holding the nearest pole in one hand, he flamboyantly tossed his other hand in the air, and acclaimed himself, "I am the great Houdini!" He swung his arm across his waist and proffered a theatrical bow. He was unsteady.

I could see past Houdini to the broad smile of the guy in the fuzzy fedora, who seemed to laugh, but not aloud. The skinny-itchy guy in the far corner took no notice of us, he was now scratching himself in his sleep. The old, crippled woman lifted her head, looked over her shoulder at us and acidly shouted, "Hey, Harry, can you keep it down?" She was instantly back to sleep. Houdini concluded his bow. He seemed dizzy for it and quickly sat down again.

"Perhaps in 1982 you do not know of the magnificent Houdini?" The guy was astute, he could see my skepticism. He leaned a little closer with that awful breath of his. "I have accomplished the greatest escape of all time," he said to me. Then he leaned back and loudly announced, "soon the whole world --" He stopped short. This time his eyes appeared sad. "Nineteen eighty-two?" he whispered.

"Nineteen eighty-two, guy," I reassured him.

He leaned his head against the wall, just staring at nothing. I could see his strength dissipating. "Eighty-eight years," he murmured.

"Is that how long you've been dead?" I asked.

"No. That's how long I've been married."


"Oh my God. Beatrice, my darling. All this time I have been trying to get back and you, my sweet darling, must have died and gone on to Heaven."

I sat quietly, just watching this hulking black man, his eyes squeezed closed. "I feel weak," were his last words, that is to say, was Houdini's last words, and he fell over.

We were coming into Ely station. The guy in the fuzzy fedora was still grinning at my predicament, this heavy drunk lying across my feet. While the train was stopped in the station, no one getting off, no one getting on, I tried lifting Houdini off the dirty floor to get him back into a seat. He woke, somewhat, but gave only slight assistance.

Unexpectedly, he pushed away. "Hey mahn, what chyu doin'?"

"Just trying to help."

"Well keep ya hands off me, I don' wan' no help." Without any further help from me, he stumbled to a seat and went back to sleep. He was still sleeping when I got off.

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