A city looks completely different to a visitor than it does to an inhabitant. When Sam had lived in New York, he’d only seen the crusty details: the people scraping to get by, the construction yards where the work could be found, the alleys that provided the best shelter when the work dried up. Now he was a tourist, and his eyes were drawn to the soaring skyline and the streets bustling with businessmen dashing off to make new deals and housewives in smart, crisp dresses pushing baby carriages. He wondered if this was all due to the new prosperity, or if he’d simply been blind to it, immersed in his own troubles.
His own suit was not quite as sharp and stylish as those around him, but he was quite proud of it just the same. He’d had to bring Joey - his fine soldier, decorated with medals of valor and a Purple Heart for his service in Italy - to the city to enroll at Columbia University. The G.I. Bill was making an engineer out of his youngest, and it was Ivy League to boot, so Annie insisted that he look the part of the respected father. They’d eaten lean for a month to afford the tailoring, but it’d been worth it: he’d felt right at home walking on campus with his scholar son.
Orientation and scheduling meetings had consumed Joey’s time today, leaving Sam a free afternoon, and he’d turned his steps toward Manhattan, to return to the only place he insisted upon seeing again. His path took him past a number of buildings he’d worked on, and he recounted their stories silently to himself as he walked. Bit of repair on that one there. Mostly brickwork and a bit of piping. Construction from the ground up on that one, at least until the money ran out. Looks like they finally got a roof on it. Oh, the dance hall. Never got to see the inside of that after we finished, only the pretty dames outside waiting to get in.
Two hours’ meander brought Sam into Midtown and his steps slowed in apprehension. Should he be trying to relive that fateful night, over a decade ago? Not a soul had believed him when he’d told the tale, that the man who’d been with him when he’d magically appeared on his own doorstep had visited him eight times in one night, providing warmth and comfort and ultimately bringing him home, changing faces all the while. Even Annie had responded with a condescending smile, so relieved at his return that she was willing to overlook whatever cockamamy story he’d provided to explain it. Over the years, he had begun to doubt it himself, but he’d clung to the fantasy, certain there was some grain of truth in it.
Straightening his jacket, Sam crossed the street and continued down the sidewalk, Times Square a few blocks behind him. He stopped the moment he spotted his doorway. On the steps leading up to the building, a young couple sat, leaning against each other, spent and despondent. The man wore work denims, a wrinkled white shirt, and a gray sweater with an odd puffed collar. His tawny hair was cropped on the sides like Joey’s military cut, but long on the top. The woman’s mess of long red hair splayed over the shoulders of a rumpled tan jacket. The neckline of her striped shirt dipped indecently low, and her tight denims were hemmed high enough to reveal her heavy shoes and lack of stockings. Her eyes, rimmed with red, were evidence that she’d been crying, probably quite a lot.
New York fashion and, to be honest, people anywhere in this great country, would have rebuked the youngsters for their strange clothing, but Sam smiled. He’d seen similar, twelve years earlier. He walked up to them.
“Good day,” he called to the couple, and when they looked up, he tipped his hat. “Are you two all right? Do you need help?”
“No, we’re fine,” the young woman responded immediately. The man had also drawn breath to speak, but he fell silent when she spoke, his hesitation betrayed by the twitch of his jaw. “Just tired. Been travellin’, just takin’ a load off.” Her brogue wasn’t quite what Sam was expecting, but it certainly still fit.
“Are you sure?” Sam tried again. “‘Cause I can help, if you need anything, or you’re lost. I know the city well enough.”
Taking the woman’s hand and squeezing it, the young man smiled at her with quiet encouragement before turning to look up at Sam. “We’re fine, thanks.” His deep English voice brought a smile to Sam’s lips. “We’ve had a rough day, any way you look at it, and we’re looking for a fresh start, but we’ll sort it, as long as we’re together.”
Sam chewed on his lip as he regarded the two and their reluctance to accept assistance, and saw himself in their eyes. He’d struck out for New York City when the trouble hit, certain that only he could carve a future for his family. He’d done a fair job of it, but why go the hard road alone when you have another choice? “Now look here, young’uns. There’s nothing wrong with being down ’n out, or accepting a leg up. I was like you once, down on my luck without a penny to my name. Right here on this very step, in fact. And you know, a man came along, and he and his friends helped me get back on my feet. I wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for them. I’ll be damned if I won’t do the same for you.”
The young woman peered up at him. “You sound like someone I know. A good friend of mine. He’d do the same.”
“Would you refuse his help?” Sam asked.
“I don’t think he’d allow us to,” remarked the young man.
“And neither will I.” Sam stepped forward to offer the woman a hand up. “I’m Sam. Sam Courtland.”
“Amy Williams,” the woman pronounced as she stood up. “This is my husband, Rory.”
“Pleasure.” Sam tipped his hat to each of them in turn. “Come on, now. We’ll get you two beds in the hostel by the university. That way, my son can check up on you easy. He’s a student there. So how’d you end up here?”
Amy glanced at Rory, unsure what to say, and he nodded. “We were travelling, like she said, but we got separated from our friends and now we’re stranded here. We’ve got nothing except the clothes on our back, and we’re likely to be stuck here for a long time.”
“Aha.” Sam scratched at his chin. “Then I’d best have my Annie wire us enough for a month’s board. Should be able to find you a job in that time,” he nodded at Rory. “I’ve got a couple of contacts in the city. Just basic work, but it’s a start. Afraid I can’t do much more than that.”
Amy shook her head with an unbelieving smile. “It’s very generous. More than anyone else would do.”
“I think people’ll surprise you,” Sam drawled. “After the last few years, we’ve learned that we gotta stick together. We’re all kin in times of need. Now come along. It’s a bit of a hike, so we might as well start, the earlier the better. That way.” Pointing up toward Times Square, he paused to let them precede him.
At the corner, as the couple gazed around at the city that was now their home, Sam turned back and looked back at his doorway one last time. “Thank you, Doctor,” he murmured under his breath.
“What?” Whirling, Amy stared at him, a hopeful spark in her eyes. “Did you just say…?”
“Just talking to myself, ma’am,” Sam assured her. “Lots of things to plan out, you know.”
“Yeah.” She ran a hand across her nose, but it looked suspiciously like wiping away a tear.
“What did you think he said?” asked Rory.
“Nothing,” Amy replied, bowing her head in embarrassment. “Nothing. Just wishful thinking. Come on, let’s go.” The traffic cleared at that moment and she pulled her husband forward, refusing to look back.
With a satisfied smile, Sam stepped into the street, following on their heels.
Happy New Year, everyone!