Mr. Green of the Eastern News by Vincent McCaffrey
When I ran away from home as a kid, it was seldom with any intention of being gone from my mother’s cooking for very long. It was not out of anger that I left, in any case, but frustration. I was a dilettante to the world of ‘runaways.’ A few hours seemed to be sufficient remedy. And by far, the place to which I most often escaped was New York City. About twenty miles, and not much more than twenty minutes by train. Often twice a month. It took that long to save enough lunch money to buy a ticket for the New Haven line.
My favorite day for this was Wednesday. It was questioned the least by my teachers. A Friday or a Monday required a written explanation from the parents. A Wednesday was covered by sniffles and a raspy “I had a cold.”
I usually went alone. This was safer in terms of getting caught. Only one person needed to lie and keep their story straight. Besides, the object of my adventure was often whimsical. After unloading the volumes I had stuffed in my sack at whatever used bookshop would take them, I wanted to ride on the Staten Island Ferry. I wanted to go to the top of the Empire State building. I wanted to go to the Museum of Natural History, or, in warmer months, the Central Park Zoo. More than once, especially on rainy days, I splurged on the matinee at Radio City Music Hall.
When the excursion was over, I usually had time to spare before the rush of commuters made my passage anonymous. A friend of mine had once been caught because he had tried to return on the 2:10 train. The conductor had too little to do then I suppose, and school did not let out until 3:00.
Besides, I liked loitering.
In cold winter months, there was no better place for this than Grand Central Station. It had good food (i.e. Hotdogs and cheese burgers). It had clean bathrooms (they had an attendant then who’d offer you a cloth towel for a quarter). It was an endless warren of nooks and crannies. A people-watching paradise. It was safe. And it had the best newsstand in the world.
The Eastern Newsstand was up an escalator from the main floor, into the Pan Am building. The typical New York newsstand was a tight corner of newspapers and magazines beneath a bare light bulb, the publications stacked purposely so that you could not read more than the headlines for free. These dens were run by a scowling, unshaven, cigar-chomping proprietor wearing a dirty apron and a beaten brown fedora who usually said “What’dya want?” before your eyes could focus.
In contrast the Eastern Newsstand was neat and orderly, brightly lit, well organized, almost spacious by any comparison. Titles were stacked high or face out so you could vicariously imagine the interiors. Moreover, it had double or triple the number of titles of anywhere else. It was a periodical paradise. I often killed an hour or more there before buying something like the Ellery Queen Mystery magazine or Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Most importantly, the proprietor was, if not friendly, at least forgiving. He was shaved. Hatless. Wearing a sports jacket and a tie. He saw me the moment I arrived. His eye occasionally followed me amidst the bustle of other customers. After a short time he would ask, “Can I help you find anything?” And then he would actually help. “The new Galaxy hasn’t come in yet, but we have the new Analog,” or “Sorry, the Hitchcock’s are sold out.” He never asked me to leave. But early on in my adventures, he did ask me the crucial question, “Shouldn’t you be in school?” I don’t remember my answer. I’m sure he would have doubted it in any case. But thankfully, he never asked again.
I assumed from that time forward that he remembered me. But I didn’t know.
Years later, when I was living in Boston and publishing my own small magazine, I was in desperate need of distribution. On a whim I caught the train to New York one morning just to go to the Eastern Newsstand again.
The same gentleman was there when I arrived. I don’t believe he remember me then. But as soon as I told him my purpose, he pulled me aside. He was frank and open with advice. He took copies of my magazine to sell. (I was not even prepared with proper invoices and he made these out himself on his own stationary) He gave me the names of other people to see. He told me how to redesign my cover for best effect. He advised me on a hundred small details I had never considered. All this within half an hour. He was a busy man. And I was on the train back home before dark.
Though I spoke to him in person more than a dozen times over the next four years, and asked his advice on several occasions, I suspect he would never have known me if we met in the street. I must have been just one of hundreds of ambitious wannabe publishers who sought him out.
On at least one occasion, upon my arrival and full of the hubris of youth, I started speaking to him breathlessly for about ten minutes before he stopped me to ask “Who are you?” I said my name. He shook his head. I pulled one of my magazines out of my bag. His eyes brightened. Ah! Suddenly he knew everything. It was all about the publications.
Bernard Green knew the business of selling newspapers and magazines better than any other human being in New York, or the World perhaps. This too is knowledge that is passing in our time.
Bernard Green died in 2002 at the age of 91. His obituary can be read in the New York Times.