TOM SLATER, R.I.P.
Tom Slater just showed up one day out of nowhere. I came into the store after school and noticed that a man was sitting in the space behind the shirt cubbies. This was a kind of grid of wooden shelves that formed a see-through partition between the left and right sides of the store. It was see-through because the cubbies had no doors and no backs. It was still a partition because many of the cubbies held white cardboard boxes containing laundered and pressed shirts, ready to be returned to the customers.
Between the left wall of the store--the wall that bordered on the establishment known as George Electric Shoe Repair--and the shirt-cubby partition, there was a space about twenty feet long and five feet wide. Of this space, perhaps the front five square feet were occupied by Maria the seamstress and her various tools of the trade. The remaining fifteen-by-five feet became Tom Slater’s.
I doubt that I was ever formally introduced to Tom; that kind of thing was not Dave’s style. At some point--maybe on the first day, maybe days or weeks later--Tom and I exchanged names. I was shy in those days, but I probably managed to mumble something like, “My name’s Jon. I work here after school.” Tom must have answered something like, “Hey, kid. Tom Slater. How y’doin’ kid?” Tom never called me anything but “kid” and almost every sentence he addressed to me included that word.
It soon became clear that Tom was not just passing some time behind the cubby-wall; he was living there. I began to learn little bits of his story. He was Dave’s buddy from their army days. He had been a welder, or some kind of machinist, but his health was failing and he couldn’t work any more. He showed up one day and asked Davey if he could stay in the store because he had nowhere else to stay. Davey didn’t have many big words or big ideas, but he had a big heart; he couldn’t send Tom Slater away.
I think that the first few nights at the store Tom made a bed of chairs; this must have been murder on his stooped back.
Later, someone provided a cot. The police officer who patrolled the area at night was informed of Tom’s presence and the deal was done. Port Washington Cleaners had a twenty-four hour resident.
Tom’s main occupation at the store was drinking beer. He drank bottle after bottle; some days it seemed that he consumed nothing else. He never got nasty-drunk or silly-drunk. He would sit with his feet up on a cubby and drink and talk until he fell into a deep sleep.
The only other effect that beer had on Tom was belching. After a couple of beers he would let out a huge belch. This was always followed by an apology: “Pard’n me, kid; ‘scuse me.”
Tom’s good manners extended beyond his apologies for belching. He never left the store without politely taking leave. He would lift his body from his chair, straighten up as much as possible, and announce: “Hey, kid. I’m goin’ over to the deli. Get me a sandwich, some beer and what-not. Want somethin’, kid? Soda or what-not?”
“What-not” was Tom’s favorite word. It stood for all of the details of life that were important but too numerous to specify. Tom loved his “what-not” as the King of Siam loved his “et-cetera.”
At some point Dave got a little annoyed with Tom’s constant drinking and sleeping. Dave showed Tom how to write up orders at the counter, and Tom began to pitch in when Dave was busy and the high-school kids, such as myself, had not yet arrived.
I sometimes came in after school to find Tom working the counter. His appearance was a symphony of angles. He bent his upper torso slightly forward and slightly to his right; it was the only way he could stand. He bent his left arm at a forty-five degree angle, allowing him to rest his hand on the counter to support his body. He slid his dark-rimmed glasses halfway down his nose to help him see the ticket. His blue-jeans, usually held up straight by wide suspenders, now were hitched up higher in the back than in the front.
Beyond beer, cigarettes and an occasional sandwich, Tom had few needs or desires. He once said that he would like “some time alone” with a particularly attractive female customer, but he had to know that that kind of thing would be too much for him in his broken condition.
Before long, life itself became too much for Tom’s body. One day I came in and found that Tom was in the hospital. A few days later, I heard that he was gone. I don’t recall a wake or a funeral or anything of that sort.
I don’t know what happened to Tom’s cot or to his pitiful little collection of personal items: some soap and shaving cream, a razor, a couple of cigarette lighters, an extra pair of jeans, maybe a copy of the Daily News that he hadn’t read yet.
Tom’s fifteen-by-five foot space was left empty, for the most part, just as it had been before he came. By now, some thirty years later, only a handful of people remember this clean, polite man who suffered, belched, and worked to the best of his limited ability. May he rest in peace.