IT WAS NOT SUPPOSED to happen this way. It was supposed to happen in a bar or a restaurant or some other place where neither one of us was on the job. But it happened when I least expected it, when I was getting into a cab. There was Eddie, and when I spotted him it was dark and there was a light rain coming down and he was standing next to a long. Lincoln limousine, talking to another chauffeur. I went up to him and said. "Your name Eddie?" and he said, "Yeah," in a bored fashion. Then he looked past the years and past the additional pounds and past the beard and the grey in the hair and somehow, because he is an amazing person, he saw me as I was when we were buck privates in the Army of long ago. "Cohen!" he yelled. We smiled and shook hands. It had been a long time.
I wish I could tell you the first moment I met Eddie, but I can't. I can tell you, though, that he once was very important to me and that we met the first week of basic training - the week you feel most lost, the week they shave your head and yell at you and take your civilian clothes and make you go to the toilet in a big room with a cold cement floor and nothing between you and the others but the understanding that no ones supposed to stare. That was the week I met Eddie and the thing I remember about him was that he was always holding back a grin, always flirting with a smile, and you could tell that his head was working, sizing up the Army to see what part it would play in this comedy called life. Eddie, I have to tell you, loved to laugh.
He was a well-built man, strong and darkly handsome and he should have been just plain tough - a rock, as we used to call people who looked like him. By trade he was a plumber and what he did was try to repair pipes in the basements of big apartment houses. He would do that so he could meet the women doing their wash in the laundry room. Eddie had a way with women. He told you that, but he told you no more. He did not boast.
It was sometime that first week that Eddie made his mark. What he did, I think, was look around and see a bunch of guys who needed something to look forward to and so he organized the Saturday night dance. He talked about it and since he was big and strong and since you could never tell when he was joking and when he was serious, he got the guys in the barracks to pair off. He got them to ask each other for dates and he got them to talk about the dance and he got it so that pretty soon the sergeants were hearing about the dance and not believing what they were hearing.
On Saturday night, Eddie was ready. He suddenly appeared from the direction of the latrine and he was in his dress uniform. None of us had yet worn the dress uniform and there was Eddie - shirt, tie, the whole works. It was ridiculous. It was absurd. It was also against regulations. One by one he got us into our dress uniforms and then he got us into the center aisle and some of us did the Lindy while some guys sang rock 'n roll acappella. The sergeants came eventually and said something about regulations and mocking the uniform, but until then it was a fine dance and Eddie, who mostly watched it all with that grin of his, was as proud as I'd ever seen him.
This was the beginning and for the next 10 weeks Eddie and I had another guy were close friends - the kind of friends you make in the Army. The three of us kept our sanity by refusing to take the Army seriously and on the last night of basic training we simply went home in the car Eddie was not supposed to have. We said goodbye and shook hands and vowed, of course, that we would stay close. We were lying and we knew it. We never saw each other again.
So now it was years later and I was coming out of a hotel in New York and there was Eddie. There was a paunch to him now and he was wearing the gray uniform of a chauffeur. The long car by the curb was his, he said - a franchise, he explained, a business.His other businesses had not gone well. Too many women, he said - too much running around. He had a girl now. I should meet her.
Eddie looked up at the hotel awning with the name of the place written on it and pointed. "You staying here? Hey, this is some place. The guy I'm driving, this is where he stays. This is his third day with me. Seventeen dollars an hour. You know how old he is? Twenty-five. Can you imagine that? This is where you stay, Cohen?"
I tried to explain. I tried to explain that this particular hotel is well past its prime, that it wasn't really expensive and that this was business anyway. But Eddie would hear none of it and instead he talked about how in the chauffeuring business you could meet rich people. That was the promise of the job. You never knew when they would hire you to do something else. A driver got hired just last week. One day a driver, next day something else. Jackpot.
By this time it was getting late and I had to go and by this time my eyes were searching for a cab and it was then that I thought it would be funny to go to my appointment in the big Lincoln - the last caper with Eddie. But then I thought better of it and hailed a cab instead.
It was not supposed to happen this way.