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Upstairs with Mr. Bibbs

The cold winds swirled down the cobblestone streets and alleys as if they were always following me, and they caused me to step up my gate and on most dark mornings to hurry past people who seemed better prepared for the elements and in no particular hurry at all.

I could tell that I was poor by the work clothes that I wore and by my shoes that this time of year seemed more fitted for inside work. But I needed the work and I was very young and whether I fetched boards or the carpenter let me nail for a while, I was satisfied to be working and to try to somehow make a place for myself … to belong … in this busy, busy city.

There were many routes to walk to work but one more particularly than any other took me past a bakery and the early morning smell of fresh baked bread made the walk warmer and more enjoyable. Someday … maybe someday I thought I will warm a cup of butter on the stove and pour it over that warm loaf and I won’t be hungry when I finish … but today is not someday but that bread surely does smell good.   

The boss would always be watching the crew and his quick tongue was usually aimed at me as he encouraged more materials to be carried up and for there never to be a shortage that slowed the work. His mouth was most foul and his words cut into me like the cold winds and when he spoke I always was reminded of the smells from the sewers that were nothing like buttered bread and I hoped never to have his job. I don’t think he was ever happy with himself and that he probably couldn’t talk much at home.

While the crew had lunch they would direct me to the closest spring and each of their dented water jugs would be returned freshened up as they closed up their lunch tins and moved back inside to work. Their lunch time together on the street always revived them … I didn’t know why and I only could wish to someday listen to their chats … when I earn it … and to have my own water jug and a lunch tin with my name on it too.

It was on 58th street … I’ll never forget … when the sticks and bricks came each day by wagon and we went up with another home … just like the last one … for someone … just someone … I never knew who. Down and across the street I always noticed a fellow sitting on a red bench and each time I glanced he was there. I remembered he whistled a lot and he seemed to enjoy his coffee more than most. About every hour or so I would hear the bells and the man on the bench would sip his coffee again and place his cup under the bench and move inside.

The routine seemed as polished as a fine tailor’s shoes … men who I never saw brought out horses that seemed so tall to a boy and each one stood in place respectfully as heavy harness and rein was quickly lowered. All the busy lifed passers by would stop on the street as a spotted dog warned each one of things to come. Over and over … time after time … a young Irish boy watched with excitement as horses and hoofs came onto the cobbles and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

On one day … a particularly fine day … I mustered up the youthful courage to just cross the street after my work and walk by this place and to say hello to this man who sat today on the bench as he had with his coffee on yesterday. He said his name was Delaney … after I asked … and he seemed unimpressed … as I tried to impress … this fellow … a bit portly … but mule kick strong. His mind seemed elsewhere as he motioned me with a thumb over shoulder … upstairs to see Bibbs if I had any more questions.

Inside the place looked almost abandoned. The horses looked out of their stalls at the stranger and not a voice could be heard as I walked nervously up these towering stairs with well-worn treads. This place was most abundant in odors and as I neared the upper landing … it was fresh coffee … and then voices … and a fine smell coming from a cooking pot on the stove. I remember how much I thought about what I had learned about trespass as all of the voices stopped and I quite bravely asked where I could find Mr. Bibbs.

I tapped slightly on the door and a voice from the other side said … yes … and I entered with cap in hand. There before me sat a man who did not bother to turn around and who seemed most involved in his writing that I watched flowing onto an unlined page of a small black book … the ink so fluid that surely I imagined an hour to dry.

His beard long and grey in the dim light of a candle … his thin necktie and dark suit … and no place for a visitor to sit among a few cobwebs … and pictures that I could not see. What did you have to eat today and what remains in your lunch pail he asked … as he now wrote in a fresh journal that he peered at through small rimmed glasses that seemed so small for such poor light. Two half’s of an apple and spring water from a bucket. Were they fresh apples just in by wagon or had their color and sweetness begun to fade from too many days outside in the sun as a seller of apples waited and hoped for a buyer of apples to come along? Are you a buyer of apples? I was somewhat ashamed to admit that I was nodded to take two apples from a box each morning by the kind man who got up so early to put out and grade his apples. Did you know that if you worked in an apple orchard you would long to taste something other than apples?

Time surely went by as quickly as I had seen the horses run and Mr. Bibbs stopped writing and neatly organized his small table and rose for the first time to remove an overcoat from an empty thread roll on the back of the door. He applied a worn bowler hat and he told me that it was closing time. As I prepared to leave and thought about walking home in what was now darkness, I wondered why this tall man was here and why so curious and queer and why he asked only about my lunch pail and apples.  

I said Thank you to Mr. Bibbs and having labored through this meeting … with disappointment … I ascended the stairs and made my way outside. I remember the chill of my deep breaths as I watched Mr. Bibbs come down the stairs and don a long overcoat and disappear into the sea of humanity … all headed somewhere …

The smell on certain mornings overwhelmed the baker’s bread and the fresh fruit and I was sure that the workers loading trash onto the wagons, the fly’s and I were the only ones who were up. I thought about the horses who pulled the trash wagons … day after day …as I continued to walk to work and I convinced myself that if horses can have wishes that maybe these horses wished to someday move up and to flare their nostrils again and with always fresh shoes they would awe everyone on the street with their flowing manes and the power and speed that they pulled a heavy steamer instead of a fly infested trash wagon. How can I have the same hopes as a horse?

The bells rang near closing time and I watched as the routine was repeated again, Delaney never whipping his horses … both hands full of reins … and shouting encouragement to each one by proper name … and really big men with big moustaches … how many of them is there … and I hope they hold on well.

I watched them disappear again and I saw Mr. Bibbs take in Delaney’s coffee cup and remove his pocket watch and stand there staring at it. I noticed for the first time that this well-dressed man in candlelight was in truth more clearly dressed in all that he had. His trousers neither matched vest nor coat … and someone else’s size had been sewn into these clothes as there was no match of fit or fashion.

As I approached, Mr. Bibbs recognized me and motioned me in and pointed to a h*** in the inner face of the door frame. He said that twice each day that h*** has great meaning and that all of us should have meaning. He pointed up to the small window in his office and he said that twice each day he watches as morning becomes light and at closing time as a Fireman puts out and brings in that most beautiful of flags and post it with respect in that simple h***. He posted the flag, lowered the doors and walked away.

On a rainy cold morning I arrived to work early … as I always do … and I was told that there was no work today. Should I hustle down to the mill and load lumber or did the stone mason need a hand or did this blessed rain shut down everything? I saw that Delany had moved his bench inside. I asked Delaney where I could go to apply to get on the list to become a Fireman. He looked up at Mr. Bibbs and he asked me if I ever thought about the things we had talked about and what each conversation meant?

Because I and many others had built so many houses there was a need for more Firemen and I couldn’t wait to tell Delaney and Mr. Bibbs that I was assigned to a firehouse across town and that I thought that I would surely like it. I did not get by 58th street as quickly as I would have liked as I dedicated all of my time and effort to learning dish washing, holding on, cleaning and keeping straw for our horses to stand on and fresh hay to make them run. I said very little and I listened a lot and only occasionally did I have time to think about half apples … or an empty lunch tin … but I did get permission to put a h*** in the door frame and I made the flag one of my daily details … and I took great personal pride in that.

Several years went by and I received a message from Delaney that Mr. Bibb’s final closing time would be on the following Friday. I made a special point of being there early and in my uniform. I made sure to shine my shoes and to have a fresh haircut. At closing time I noticed the candle go out in Mr. Bibb’s office and I heard him lock up his office for the final time. All the Firemen … all of them … many I had never seen stood together and watched as Mr. Bibbs slowly came down the stairs in a fitted black suit, holding a new Bowler with an umbrella and a fitted new overcoat, purchased for him by the crews. His haircut and trimmed beard made for a very proud man who didn’t speak but listened intently to each Thank you and Goodbye as he shook hands with each one and then strolled quite dapperly into the crowd for the last time on these cobblestones.

In his final handshake to me I could feel him passing something into my hand … I couldn’t speak … but when he was gone I glanced at the key he had given me and I knew that I needed to go … once again … up those stairs that had always before, in my youth, led to seemingly meaningless visits and conversations from an old man to a young kid.

I left the key in the lock, lit two candles, closed the door behind me and looked around for the last time. The cobwebs were still there and only now could I see the characters in the pictures that had once adorned the walls now neatly stacked on the small table under two half’s of a fresh apple.

In the pictures was a young man in worn out shoes and clothes that didn’t seem to fit. In one picture he unloaded hay and straw for the horses and in another he was captured clearing snow from the cobblestones and in most all of the pictures the Firemen smiled and looked on at this young man making their day so special … washing dishes when they stayed out all night … shining boots scattered out on the floor … giving directions to those who misplaced themselves … and the last one of a younger man who had become so much older but still had a place at the table.

Should I be here … in this private place … was this his intent … and why. Bundled together by thin ribbons were stacks of small black books and his writing instruments all neatly stacked inside an old leather lunch sack. I closed the door and decided to walk home on this night and I smelled fresh bread and ate two half’s of an apple as I walked.

The book on top of the stack told the story of an old man who received a knock on his office door and he saw himself come in. He tried not to look at the kid and instead asked him questions that he had wished that someone had asked him. Something about whole apples, fresh apples, half apples and why the shop keeper decided to give the apples away to this kid … this one of the many people who walked by his stand in a day.

He wrote about a much tougher time that I had not known and how he as a young man had selected his dark route to his jobs … well before time … in order to make his team look good and how he too had fetched water and gladly accepted his station in life as just a fixture in life and it was amazing how his hopes for tomorrow mirrored mine. He wrote about being given his own office upstairs on 58th Street and how each day he arrived at his office with such a warm feeling of belonging. The strange man in the Bowler closed doors and opened them, talked to the horses, and made sure that the flag was respected and he went home each day feeling meaningful and fulfilled.

It is taking me a long time to read all the journals of Mr. Bibbs … each one about someone … or maybe all about me … or about you … or about some other kid… but each reading … a found treasure.

The firehouses across the land need a Mr. Bibbs … maybe in uniform … or maybe not. It is about the walking in and the walking out and mostly I think it is about giving thanks for the sights, sounds and smells that take place in between.

I’m glad to have had a half apple, an empty lunch tin and to have taken water from a bucket. I still haven’t poured butter over a hot loaf of bread but I’m glad I still can smell it and someday I will. I called my shoes holy and I figured it was a lesson from above on avoiding potholes and puddles in life. I’m blessed to have fetched water and to go home so tired that I didn’t feel hungry anymore. I’m glad to have paid attention to Delaney and that he sent me upstairs with Mr. Bibbs.

Wave at every child – it is a second of your time.

Clean up the cobblestones.

Put up and take down the flag.

Respect the horses and those who hold on with you.

Follow your Delaney who knows the way.

Polish your routines to a fine Taylor’s shine.

Say Thank you often.

You are a Fireman – be damn proud of that.

Tell your Mr. Bibbs how he changed your life.

Have a Great day – it’s a GREAT day for it.

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