The Irish boy fell in love the same day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The year was 1941, the month December, the hour a quarter to ten in the morning, just past the heaviest commuter traffic through the station with its lofty windows and great doors. The day was cold with that dampness that chills more than a colder day in winter. Men pressed their hats down tighter; women tucked their scarves into their coats before descending the great steps. Occasionally a traveler might move aside, allowing other men and women to pass, and nod to one of the shoeshine boys.
The Irish boy had been shining a man’s rather worn leather shoes when he turned his head and saw the girl in the pink coat climbing against the flow of traffic. He’d seen her before, followed her progress up the steps and inside, sometimes found himself on line at the newspaper stand behind her and a woman who resembled a tired version of her. Today a trick of the light—a sunbeam bursting through the clouds—illuminated the girl’s hair and wide face and bright attire. She wore pink, newly scuffed shoes and a pink bow in her hair and she was being dragged along by a new woman who seemed in a hurry. “Let go of me! I don’t want to!” the girl was shouting, but the woman turned toward the archway beyond which steel rails stretched toward the mainland where the Irish boy had never traveled. Someday he would; someday he would ride those rails very far and return triumphant. For now he was fourteen and expected not only to pay his own rent in his aunt’s house, but to turn over fifteen dollars each month to his mother over in Gowanus.
The sun went in. The girl passed the Irish boy—he could have touched his dirty hand to her pink coat sleeve. “Let me go!” the girl hissed just then—not by way of feeling sorry for herself, more by way of insisting. Perhaps this insistent air made travelers see the struggling pair as family, self-contained; perhaps these travelers had other matters with which to contend. Once, the boy had seen a small man cross Fifth Avenue on a tightrope. While everybody’s heads were turned up, another smaller man had moved through the little crowd and quietly stuck his hand into this pocket or that.
The Irish boy considered himself pretty well-off now. He had paid off the older man who had sold him the wooden kit for fifteen dollars down and ten dollars credit. Inside the kit (on whose pedestal a traveler stood leaning his left shoe) the boy kept several yellow cloths, one brand-new and three others somewhat stained with brown and black and navy polish. The boy’s kit also contained an old, big brush to get the brightest possible shine and a much smaller one that his father had given him and that he rarely used. He had applied the bigger brush to the man’s two shoes and rubbed polish on them both and worked out a pebble from between sole and upper shoe; the whole process would take under fifteen minutes, and the boy would get five cents plus the occasional surprise. As for the man whose shoes the boy was not quite finished shining, he was in a hurry to arrive at an interview at Saks—they were hiring a floor manager—yet he felt an odd despair upon observing how his shoes, even polished, looked used. In his youth, this man had dreamed of becoming a movie actor.
The girl, herself a child actress, was still struggling to free herself from the grip of the grim-faced woman, who had managed to reach the last of the wide stairs leading toward the great pillared entrance. When the girl saw the Irish boy watching, as he had done on other occasions, she made a sign that he understood to mean, “save me.” He lay down his smaller brush. The girl had dark hair, almost black, and such sad eyes in such a pale face! The woman had red hair, Irish-red like the boy’s own mother, who lived in a railroad flat on Luquer Street in Brooklyn with the boy’s younger sister and brother and Joe, who came to stay some nights.
Both girl and woman vanished inside.
The boy scratched under his cap and the man whose shoes he’d been shining woke up from his despairing reflections. “What? When?” the man said.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the boy said and took off on a run.
If he hurried, he might catch the girl in the pink coat and the woman before they disappeared into one of the trains to Long Island or elsewhere.
The traveler whose shoes were only half shined glanced around. He looked left and he looked right. He got up off the chair, leaned down, and used the boy’s towel to rub his own other shoe. A speck of polish flew onto the cuff of his gabardine jacket. “Damn it,” he said and, slinging the jacket over his arm, stalked off.
Inside the women’s waiting room, the talk was of the attack on a place called Pearl Harbor. A woman heard about it on her way here, and another heard it first on the radio. Both were talking loudly while a thin woman in the corner was trying to get an even thinner woman, in spite of the hour, to lie down. The boy was almost too old to walk in here on the pretext of looking for someone such as a mother or aunt. He was tall for his age with a round face and intense black eyes beneath thick brows, and he was often hungry. He was hungry now as he hurried out of the waiting room, leaving the two women in conversation about the innocent Americans who had died on the Oklahoma. President Roosevelt was going to speak to the country, no doubt. “This will mean war,” still another woman was saying to the knitting bundle on her voluminous lap.
Around then, the boy remembered about his chair and his shoe-polishing supplies. It occurred to him that he might have misread the girl’s lips, her cry for help. He didn’t know how old she was or if she belonged to that new woman. He decided to double back, secure his possessions, and only afterward to look for the girl. Perhaps, he thought, she would rush once again past his stand on her way outside.
As the boy went back through the great doors, he could feel a difference in the city. Something had happened—something he had thought about, yet had not anticipated. People walked with a new vitality, it seemed to him, but perhaps he’d mistaken them all these years for simps and patsies. (That was what his father had called his fellow dockworkers before disappearing.)
The boy had been nine years old on the day that his father left. His father had been a big man with thick muscles from working the docks, and when he drank, all the veins on his forehead stuck out.
The girl in the pink dress yanked suddenly free of the woman who’d been drawing her toward the many quais. This woman wasn’t the girl’s mother or aunt, but a merciless person attempting to kidnap the popular child star who would soon play opposite Judy Garland in the film Meet Me at St. Louis. “Help! Help!” the girl shouted, but no one seemed to notice. Only when they passed the great clock did a train conductor, glancing up from the schedule he’d been consulting, catch sight of the child. His eyes, narrowing, and the child’s, imploring, met. She looks familiar, he thought, with her brown eyes and pink bow.
“Hey, lady,” the conductor said, and the child made a last, successful effort to pull her hand free.
“Oh, sir, you have saved my life,” the child actress said, tumbling gracefully into his arms.
Years later, gathering beneath a large photograph of the old Main Hall of the original Penn Station, a schoolteacher pointed to a young shoeshine boy in the foreground. “That is the late senator from New York,” the woman told the children with her. “His views on poverty are disputed to this day.”
That wasn’t quite what she’d meant to say. The senator had, in fact, deplored fatherlessness in the inner city—had blamed the victim, many people still felt. But it was almost June now, and hot outside, and the children (whose families came in all sizes and shapes) clearly took more interest in one another than in the monuments of New York; like others in her first year of teaching, this project had seemed to pall even as they’d all emerged from the subway. History never repeats itself, she remembered reading somewhere as the first half of a witty joke. Perhaps some truth lay in the notion, even so. Certainly none of them—not the children, so committed to the moment at hand; nor the train conductor, long since retired on his pension; nor the actress, whose juvenile gift for real tears remains legendary—could recall that other moment when, having rescued his livelihood, the Irish boy had raced, awkwardly embracing his bouncing shoeshine kit, back through the great hall with its clock and pillars and remarkable windows and the larger-than-life statue of the railroad magnate down a hitherto unremarked staircase that led—the sounds of the station above swiftly receding, so that the boy became aware of his own stolen breath as he descended—not onto the passenger quais (the girl having quite vanished), but into a subterranean yard that seemed to house a quantity of abandoned rolling stock, ancient and ornamental sleeper cars that would soon be melted down to provide steel and a little brass for the war effort.