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His Soul Was Different

Today’s political candidates have rediscovered America’s middle class, at least for the duration of the presidential campaign. That being the status of my upbringing, I reflected on those I have encountered in life and have written, with some license, about someone I knew through my father, an average guy named Joe who worked for the New York subway system. The story is titled, His Soul Was Different.

His Soul Was Different

Joe Bunce never had much success in life, but it wasn’t that he never tried. That he did, but with few good results. Joe always seemed to walk in circles or was following someone else. You could say that though his feet were constantly moving, they were never headed in the direction of success. Aside from that he was friendly, well-liked, and faithful to his friends and family. What more could you ask of an average Joe? Someone once said, “I really like Joe, he always seems to be there. He doesn’t offer much, but you feel comfortable around him. I guess you could say that his soul was different.

Joe, and the rest of our crowd, grew up in a large New York apartment complex. There were many kids our age. You could always depend on someone being in the wading pool, on the swings, in the sandbox, or on the monkey bars to play with. If only one person was there, if would be Joe Bunce, even on rainy days. Always there with a grin on his pudgy and heavily freckled face. He never won at anything. Maybe a few third places in foot races, and in a ball game his line drives were always speared by a fielder robbing him of a hit, and you could always depend on him to make the game’s only error.

To be fair to Joe, our neighborhood was replete with great athletes. In the playground you were always playing with older guys. You either got better or you were beaten down a notch. Joe always tried to hang in there. He was conscious of his lack of skills, but, it never seemed to bother him. The coaches, the neighborhood fathers, always encouraged him, “You have potential, Joe,” they’d tell him. Try as he may, he never fulfilled that potential, he usually came up short. People often described him as a “hard worker.” He was, but things always seemed to go wrong. Joe was always the kid who came home with skinned knees and a hole in his pants.
The Depression years were tough, but the families in our Queens neighborhood persevered through the hard times. It was different for the children, who were out in the play streets and the vacant lots after school keeping themselves occupied. Depending on the time of the year, we might be playing stickball, stoop ball, softball and baseball, touch football, roller hockey, basketball, or marbles. The hard times passed quickly for the kids.

At William Cullen Bryant High School, we heard day in and day out that we would soon be going to war against Hitler and Mussolini. Pearl Harbor caught us looking the wrong way. Hideki Tojo’s flyboys pulled off their sneak attack when we were seniors. We were all anxious to serve and some enlisted before graduation. You enlisted in the Navy or the Marines if you didn’t want to get drafted into the Army. Dad had served in the Navy, so that’s where I went. Two weeks after graduation I was on a train to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago close to the Wisconsin border.

Joe Bunce couldn’t make up his mind and got drafted into the Army and spent the whole war in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Joe’s one good skill saved him from combat. He could type. As luck would have it, he ended up as a clerk in the supply depot. When he was discharged he was still on the pudgy side. It appeared that Joe had never missed a meal, nor did he have to hike or run it off, which would have been the case were he assigned to the infantry. All of our gang survived the war, though most of us had close calls. My Destroyer was attacked by Kamikaze pilots near Okinawa killing my buddies manning the adjoining 40mm gun mount.

After the war, some of us went to college on the GI Bill, and many became cops, firemen, or ended up in other civil service jobs. After college, some of the guys started careers in the financial sector, insurance, and advertising. While I was working for an insurance company, I attended Fordham Law School at night.
All of us soon married and eventually ended up living in the new developments out on Long Island. It was a no brainer. With our veterans’ benefits we could buy a home with no down payment and low interest rates on the mortgage.

Joe Bunce married Charlotte Mc Cabe, a girl he had met at Fort Dix. Charlotte had worked in Joe’s office in the supply depot. She was a plain looking girl, who had spent two years in the convent after high school. After the harsh convent life she was drawn to a gentle guy like Joe, and they married and started a family while Joe was still at Fort Dix.

Joe had always liked trains. His father had been a motorman for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the IRT, which was the oldest of the three New York subway lines that have since been combined into the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the MTA. Through his father’s connections, Joe went to work for the IRT a few months after his discharge in 1945.

He started out as a conductor on the Jerome Avenue line. Within five years he became a motorman driving the Times Square to Main Street Flushing line, which is now the “7” train. After another five years, he landed his dream job at the 14th Street control and switching tower. He got the job because his father knew somebody, a transit guy in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who knew somebody, who knew somebody. That’s how things worked in New York in those days.

Working as a tower man was a complicated job, a challenging job. Joe wanted to move on. He felt he could do it. He had grown tired of the long hours on moving trains. The daily routine was taking its toll. He was losing his edge. The conductor job was all rote. When the train stopped, he unhinged the chain guard between the middle cars, stepped up on the foot pedestals and pushed down on the control arms to open and the close the doors. The motorman’s job was more exacting and somewhat straining. He was always on the alert. He had to be. Driving a heavy train down narrow tracks at high speeds was challenging. The careful stop and go at the stations, paying attention to the conductor who was watching the passengers leaving and entering the cars, the awareness of the signals, the slow down on a yellow, the stops on red, and go on green required his constant awareness. Also, there were more complicated and critical signals he had to look for, the interlocking signals at the track switching locations. He had to be totally focused, always concentrating on what was ahead on the tracks. He couldn’t be hung over or daydreaming. The former was never a problem since he wasn’t much of a drinker. He might have a beer at dinner or when he was relaxing in front of the television on the weekends.

The 14th Street control and switching tower was located at the south end of the downtown side of the station. It was not a tower, just a long narrow room with a control panel on the wall with indicator lights showing the location of the IRT trains running through the 14th Street-Union Square station. Underneath the panel were manual handles that electrically controlled the switches running up and down the line.

This was heady stuff for Joe Bunce. It was also a comfortable office operation. There was a couch where you could take a nap, and in the refrigerator, or the “ice box” as they called it, was a case of canned beer in a hidden compartment behind the cokes and sandwiches. The men who worked there were everyday people – regular guys as New Yorkers would say. If anything, they were authentic, never trying to impress anyone. It was like being in a neighborhood tavern. Their talk each day was artless, the crowds on the subway, the weather, family issues, and sports, particularly about New York’s baseball teams, the Yanks, Giants, and Dodgers, and college football and basketball. Pro football and basketball were still a few years away from becoming popular sports.

Joe fit right in with his work crew. Barry Flynn, the chief dispatcher, supervised the tower, Phil Ellis was his assistant, and Pete Ambrose was the clerk who manned the phones and the two-way radio instructing train operators of their routing. Joe would work with Phil Ellis for two months before Phil moved up to the Mott Avenue Tower, where he would become the chief dispatcher. Phil lived in the Bronx so this was the perfect spot for him.

Essentially, Joe’s job would be to monitor the signal control board and operate the controls for the interlocking switches. Having worked as a motorman, he understood the importance of this function that is critical to moving the trains in a safe and timely manner including moving trains from one track to another – express trains to the local tracks and locals to the express tracks during train breakdowns, emergency situations, and maintenance.

Phil Ellis started out by explaining to Joe how things worked in the tower. Joe stared at the long row of levers controlling switches and signals. Each lever had a number that appears both on the actual signals in the tunnel and on the control board above the levers that displayed the track layout, with red lamps at various points in the tracks to indicate track occupancy. The levers were also equipped with lights indicating when they were free to be operated. Despite his familiarity with the track signals, it was initially hard for Joe to grasp the details of the operation. He stood there scratching his head as Phil explained and re-explained things that first day. After a couple of weeks, Joe was getting the drift of things, and Phil let Joe work by himself while keeping a close eye on him. Meanwhile, Barry Flynn would be working on the case of beer or catching up on his sleep. Phil kept a close eye on Joe, knowing that Barry, not being reliable, might not be in a position, as in not being fully sober or awake, to advise Joe in critical situations.

Fortunately, the interlocking system was virtually failsafe. It would automatically lock all the signals in red to stop trains and prevent them from moving into a closed switch, which would cause a derailment. In essence, the interlocking signals were designed to prevent the controls from being operated by mistake, malice, contrivance or accident to create an unsafe situation on the tracks. This gave Phil some peace of mind in turning things over to Joe. There had been a couple of situations where Barry had lost his balance and grabbed hold of a control lever to steady himself, an action that resulted in stopping the trains. On another occasion, in falling, Barry’s arm had tripped four levers. Phil warned Joe that he really had two jobs, watching the signal board, and watching where Barry was.

Joe’s father had a drinking problem. Hell, in our German, Irish, and Polish neighborhood everyone’s father seemed to have had that problem. They all believed that they were entitled to their beer. They always seemed to have a buzz on. This made Joe sympathetic to Barry’s issues. It also made him reluctant to leave his post to urinate. Failsafe switching system or not, the trains had to keep running, so rather than use the small toilet in the back of the tower, Joe stayed at the controls and used a large pickle jar into which he relieved himself. He was not about to let Barry get his hands on the control levers, especially late in their shift. Pete Ambrose had to maintain contact with the motormen; therefore, he couldn’t be distracted or take Joe’s position at the control panel.

Eighteen months after Phil left to take over the Mott Avenue Tower, the unthinkable happened. Joe came to work with the stomach flu. He could have called in sick, but he was worried that his substitute would report Barry’s drinking and sleeping on the job.

The pickle jar wouldn’t do. He had to continually use the toilet. To compound the situation, Barry was heavy into the canned beer, and Pete Ambrose was on vacation. Ed Johnson, his substitute, didn’t know how to deal with the situation when a rail connection separated on the local track in the station. Joe routed all of the local trains up the line onto the express track. The interlocking signals on the express track were blinking yellow and green up the line, which alerted the trains that the switches were set straight and to proceed with caution as there was a forthcoming red light. A maintenance worker from the track repair crew was sent up the express tracks as a safety precaution to waive trains through the last interlocking signal at the switch approaching the station. Joe set that signal to the “call on” position of two red lights and an orange light permitting the train to slowly pass the red signal and proceed into the station.

The Pepto Bismol was not working. Joe held out as long as he could before he had to get to the toilet, but not before telling Ed Johnson to keep reminding the trains by radio that there was a signal man in the tunnel and to follow his directions in proceeding past the last red signal.

Joe was on the toilet when it happened. The signal man was hit by a train proceeding too fast past the call on signal. By the time he got out of the toilet, the situation was out of control. Barry was screaming that he had left his post, and Ed Johnson was crying. He was distracted keeping an eye on Barry and had stopped warning the train operators that there was a signalman in the tunnel. The motorman on the train that hit the signal man said that he received no warning over the radio. He didn’t see the signal man until just before he hit him. Joe was beside himself. Within hours, Joe, Barry, and Ed would be suspended pending an investigation. Joe needed a lawyer and he called me.

Oh no, Joe has dropped the ball again, I thought as he started to explain his predicament. I was soon relieved when Joe related what had happened. When he had explained everything, I assured him that things would be fine. “But what will happen to Barry? It was all Ed Johnson’s fault,” he said.
Same old Joe, still concerned about the other guy, the guy at fault. “Barry was drinking. He was impaired, Joe. He failed to make sure that Johnson followed your instructions. He should be fired, if not jailed.”

Joe shook his head. “No, he’s got a problem, a family. He might lose his pension.”

“I’m your lawyer, Joe. You were sick, but you still came to work. You came to work because you were concerned about Barry’s faults. You set the signals properly. You instructed Johnson to notify the motormen there was a flag man at the last signal light. Had he followed your instructions, the accident never would have happened.”

“I’m worried about those two guys. What will happen to them?”

“Believe me, Joe, they’re not worried about you. It’s what should happen to them. Barry was drunk and Johnson will deny that you instructed him to notify the motormen of the flag man in the tunnel. They’ll both turn on you to save their own skins.

“You really think they’ll do that.”

Nice guy, Joe. He’ll never change. I said to myself. “I guarantee it, Joe! We need to get a statement from Phil Ellis about Barry’s drinking on the job, and also try to find out more about Ed Johnson. We have to learn about his work record, things like how come he was a substitute, and where he’d been posted. I have to interview people who worked with him. I have to get a statement from the motorman and the other train operators in the chain of trains behind him.”

Joe, ever the good soul was taken back. He didn’t realize that to prove his good faith and proper performance of the required procedures in a situation that went bad, he would have to question the character and conduct of others. He had to defend himself against the lies that they would tell to protect themselves.

I got Joe through the hearing in fine fettle. Barry Flynn and Ed Johnson were less than credible witnesses. Phil Ellis reluctantly testified about his former boss’ problems, and the testimony of the motorman who hit the signal man verified that he was not notified about the presence of the flag man, which was corroborated by the statements of the motormen up the line. Barry Flynn and Ed Johnson were suspended. Joe was resolved of blame, promoted, and returned to the 14th Street tower as the chief dispatcher. He had the couch and the refrigerator removed. He replaced the couch with an old arm chair and purchased a small refrigerator from Sears & Roebuck. He also discarded the pickle jar. Under Joe’s supervision, the tower was functioning in good order adhering strictly to the rules.

Joe was happy at the 14th Street location. He enjoyed the area, especially the numerous luncheon spots and shopping for clothes at Klein’s across from Union Square. In another ten years he was promoted to the control center at Grand Central, eventually becoming second in command. Over the years, he and Charlotte raised five children, and they begat many children making him a grandfather in his late 40’s. Things were going well for Joe, who after work every day took the Flushing Line train to Hunters Point Avenue and connected to the Long Island Railroad for the ride home to Port Washington.

Joe and Charlotte had a happy and enduring relationship. Over the years, there were many little league games, CYO basketball tournaments, ballet and piano recitals, First Communions, Confirmations, and graduations of their numerous grandchildren, who had become a major part of their lives. They had big plans for Joe’s retirement. Joe had purchased a condominium south of Naples, Florida, where they would live during the winter. The apartment’s extra bedrooms were for their children and grandchildren who they would encourage to join them.

One morning, a few months before his retirement, upon his arrival at the lower level at the Grand Central stop, Joe noticed a crowd of people gathered at the edge of the platform on the Queens bound side. As he edged his way through the crowd, he asked out loud, “What happened? Is anything wrong?”

“A blind guy fell onto the tracks.”

Joe got to the edge of the platform to see a man lying between the tracks. “Are you all right?” Joe asked, before looking to his right to see if a train was coming.

“I hurt my leg,” the man said in a faint voice.

“Don’t move. I’ll help you up.”

Joe sat down on the edge of the platform and carefully lowered himself onto the track bed. He gingerly stepped between the tracks, lifted the man to his feet, and led him to the platform, where two other men lifted the man to safety.

Joe felt the rush of air coming through the tunnel before he heard the oncoming train approaching. People shouted and screamed, but it was too late to be lifted up to the platform. Instead, Joe took refuge beneath the platform’s overhang, making his thick body smaller as he braced himself with his hands above his head underneath the platform’s grimy edge and with his feet in the watery slime at the base of the platform. He closed his eyes and held his breath. His heart raced and his ear drums vibrated painfully from the piercing sound as the train roared past him producing a suction drawing his corpulence towards its undercarriage, but Joe held tight until the train stopped. A man on the platform ran past the stopped cars to tell the conductor that there was a man underneath the platform. The conductor responded quickly and was soon talking to Joe. When he was assured that Joe was not injured, he ran ahead to the motorman and instructed him to move the train forward slowly until Joe could move out from under the platform. When Joe was pulled up from the tracks, he collapsed in a heap. An ambulance was called, and by the time he was hauled up to the street he was unconscious. He was briefly revived in the ambulance that quickly drove him to the emergency ward at Bellevue Hospital.

Joe had suffered a massive heart attack and was in and out of consciousness for the next few hours. By the time that Charlotte arrived at the hospital, it was touch and go for Joe – he was barely clinging to life. She stayed at the hospital that night with two of her sons keeping her company in the waiting room. Early that morning a doctor approached them. “Did you see this morning’s papers?”

“What about my husband?”

“He’s a fighter. He told me he wants to win this. He’s going to make it, but he’ll need a lot of rest. ”

Charlotte smiled through her tears. “When can I see him?”

“In a few hours, he’s in a sedated sleep.”

Her head dropped as she cried.

“When can he come home?” her son, Joe, asked.

“Not for a while. He needs to recuperate here. We’ll have to keep a close eye on him.”

“You mean he’s going to be all right,” Joe said.

“Yes, your father’s going to pull through this. He has the will, but he’s going to have to lose a lot of weight. He’ll have to watch his diet carefully.”

Before the doctor turned away he handed Charlotte his copy of The Daily News. She unfolded the paper and looked at the bold headline:


Underneath the headline was the picture of a black man holding a white cane, the caption of the photo stating, “The man who helped me had a good soul.”
Charlotte smiled. Yes, that’s my Joe. I knew his soul was different the moment I met him at Fort Dix.

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