Monday, April 13, 2009

Life Turns Ten - Part 3

(continued from March 30, 2009)

F.M. Howarth got to Sardi’s just as the other illustrators were arriving. He had never met most of them and they were the stars of their day. Gibson was a household word; someday, for a brief time, Howarth would be, too. His “Funny Folk” and “Lulu and Leander” strips became well known and his witty captions once made people rock with laughter.

His hands trembled as he handed his heavy topcoat to the coat check attendant at the entrance to Sardi’s. He took the paper ticket and shoved it into the breast pocket of his suit coat as he walked into the bar. “Come and meet the other guests!” Van said. Howarth felt as though he were slowly pushing forward through a mist. Cigar smoke filled the air; men talked loudly, laughed, and whooped after hearing a good story. No women allowed. Van continued, “Fellows, this is young Franklin. He’s just started working for us. Watch your hides, boys! This one’s got real talent!”

Franklin blushed and the tremor in his hands grew stronger. He took a deep breath as Gibson chimed in. “Franklin drew the cartoons for the menu tonight.” “Oh my word,” Franklin replied. “You mean you printed those? They were just doodles, just ...”

“My boy, you know anything left on a sketchpad is fair game. I grabbed ‘em and we printed them on the menu. You’ll see ... .”

Howarth was elated but cautious. His quiet nature prevented him from saying much in the presence of the older illustrators. He moved along the bar to get a glass of Scotch. He soaked in the gaiety, conversation, the smell of men in suits and evening clothes. Since Howarth did not own an evening suit, he wore his Sunday best, which was good enough. No one seemed to care; in this crowd, only Gibson and Van were dressed for the opera. The other men came from business or their studios after cleaning up.

Several artists spoke with Howarth about his work, his models, where he lived, what he hoped to do in the future. The Great Gibson, as Howarth called him later, deigned to say hello and compliment the younger man on his wit. Soon they went into dinner and Howarth gasped when he saw the menu. With a cover drawn by Van, the menu placed Howarth’s sketches in the best possible company. All the tiny men and women that lived in his pen were on the elegant menu printed on thick, ecru card. The other illustrators signed his menu at the end of the evening, avoiding the splot of beef gravy that landed on it before dessert. Howarth held the menu in his hand carefully, as he put on his topcoat and prepared to leave. Tonight he would stay with his friend Silas Drew over in Turtle Bay – a close walk on a starry night.

Franklin gave a jaunty little wave as he left Sardi’s. He turned east and walked all the way to Second Avenue along 42nd Street. It was late, almost midnight, and only the bravest walkers were out on the street. Howarth turned up his collar and pulled his hat down more carefully onto his round head. In the light from the gas lamps, he picked his way through the leftover Christmas snow, moving quickly in the direction of Drew’s home.

As he prepared to cross Second Avenue and turn north, he saw someone coming up on his left side. When he turned, no one was there. “Must be the port,” he thought to himself. “Probably had a bit too much to drink. I won’t have anything with Silas. Just want to go to sleep when I get there ... .” Howarth kept moving along, peering into a window full of old clocks, a particular interest of his. In the glass, he caught sight of a someone standing behind him, a few steps away. A slight form, probably a woman or a tall child. Probably a streetwalker. He watched her as she watched him. He took a step away and she followed, hesitatingly. “Mister?” she said quietly. “Not interested, miss,” he replied. “No, no mister, it’s not like that. Mister, I’m hungry.”

Didn’t she know it was dangerous out here at night, all alone? Even her friends were huddled in their small rooms by now and the foot patrol had already passed this way an hour ago. The gas lamps did not cast much light, and the moon had become obscured by large clouds. Tomorrow, it would snow, Howarth thought. Tomorrow he would return to Philadelphia.

“Mister, please, can you help me? You seem like a gentleman.”

The young woman stepped into the ring of light cast by the streetlamp. Howarth remembered where he had seen her before. Of course – in the Depot. She was sleeping there today as if waiting to catch a train. She would have been thrown out if she’d tried to beg for a few coins. So here she was, on the street, all alone. “I just need a little food, sir. Can you spare a dime?”

(to be continued)

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