"God bless you," the old man said, "God bless you," and he wiped the tears from his eyes. The tears weren't motivated by emotion. They were caused by the level of his intoxication.
He had immigrated to America from Croatia in 1959, but his accent was still heavy and evident in his every word. He raised his glass to click against mine. He was very happy with me. I was the guy who didn't think he looked his age, which was 71. He had more hair than I do, and most of it was still black.
For almost 40 years he had worked as a longshoreman, loading crates on the docks of Manhattan and Brooklyn every day. Seven years ago, he retired. "My mind does not want to retire," he admitted, "but my body can tolerate work no more. How old are you?"
"God bless you," he said, raising his glass. "My age is very different," he continued," I cross myself every morning," and he indicated the gesture. "Every day is lucky. Every day is not what to be expected. For you, they are expected. But not so with me. You understand?"
He smiled easily. There was something very familiar about him. He was one of those people whose face immediately compels you to like them. I had never really understood what people meant when they described a face as "honest." Now, I did. As he tried for the third time to light his cigarette, I finally realized why he seemed familiar: he looked like Robert Mitchum.
"What was it like in New York in 1959?" I asked.
"Aah!" he smiled, slapping the table. "Very different! In 1959, a subway token was only 15 cents. A pack of cigarettes was 25 cents."
We were at Rudy's on 9th Ave. I'd been waiting for a friend when I fell into conversation with the Croatian immigrant. When my friend finally arrived, I went to shake the old man's hand and noticed for the first time that it had been badly crushed. There was nothing left but the middle finger.