It was cold, not just bitter cold or the kind one can deal with using more clothing. It was so cold one could imagine it was sent purposely as a punishment, daring man, woman and machine to confront it. Yet, here he was standing at the bus stop as he had for many years, waiting for the Manhattan bound bus, hoping it would not be so foolish as to leave the warm garage and he could return home. There were moments when the cold seemed to have frozen his mind and he felt as if he was floating in ether. He mused he had died the night before and the bus he was waiting for was not Manhattan bound, but one that picks up the dead for their final journey. Having always dismissed a hereafter and reassuring himself the bus stop and surroundings were as they always had been, he decided the numbing cold was playing tricks with his mind and he was in fact alive. After what appeared to be the duration of an ice age, he saw in the distance the familiar lights and colors of the Q44 bus, and he felt better. The bus pulled up to the curb and he noticed it was not the Q44. It had no number at all. In the place where a number would appear, there were names. Dudley, Kemp, Goldberg and just as he was about to board, his own name, Finkel, joined the others.
The cold suddenly seemed more terrible than it had been so that the desire to enter the warm bus, no matter the consequences, overcame his initial reaction to turn and run. He entered the bus and was about to deposit the fare when the driver said, “This trip is free, please sit down.” There were two men and one woman already seated and as he sat down he noted it was the same number of people whose names appeared in lights on the front of the bus. No one spoke. The bus pulled away from the curb and, trying to persuade himself everything was all right and it was just the cold causing the confusion, he awaited the driver’s usual next announcement, “Union Turnpike.” But as the bus approached that stop, the driver said, “Next stop, Ellen Timken.” The bus stopped and a confused middle aged woman boarded it and seated herself. Finkel was now in a state of panic and shouted, “Hey Mac, does this bus go to Manhattan?” “Yes it does, among other places,” the driver replied.
David M. Finkel was a lawyer who had practiced for over 40 years, neither liking nor disliking it. He never deluded himself into thinking he was doing something important, but he was not bored. There were some highs and it paid the bills. He did trial litigation and was always propelled to make sure he left no stone unturned. Win or lose, his opponents knew they had been in a good fight. He was uncertain as to what pushed him so, particularly in a field he felt had marginal value to society, He did not think of himself as being ambitious and it may have been guilt, but he was not sure. He did grow up with immigrant parents who dared not confront authority, even if they had the right to do so, lest they be shipped back to Galicia from whence they came, a place he wouldn’t mind visiting but not live. He trudged through life giving everything he did, his best shot.
Unlike his parents, Finkel had no innate fear of authority and indeed as a lawyer he faced it constantly. He had a vivid recollection of his very first day in Mrs. Brown’s kindergarten class in PS87 and could not understand why some of the children, who upon seeing their mother leave, began to cry. Finkel loved being in the class and was not even aware his mother brought him to school, that task undertaken by one of his older sisters or brother. He recalled his first brush with authority when Mrs. Hatter, his first-grade teacher, sweetly asked him to do something he did not want to and told her, “You are not my boss,” precipitating a near scandal in the Finkel household with the dire prediction that response would surely send the family packing and back to Galicia.
Finkel was not intimidated by the bus driver’s uniform and was no stranger to the art of asking questions. He asked the driver, “Are you sure this bus goes to Manhattan?” To which the driver replied, “This bus will take you to where you are supposed to go.” Finkel, having had considerable experience dealing with ambiguities, was not satisfied with the driver’s reply. He began to think the bus had been commandeered and made a mental note of what the driver and the other passengers looked like. He then groped with his hand towards the floor of the bus for his briefcase, but it was not there. He immediately thought he had left it at the bus stop and shouted, “I left my bag at the bus stop. We must go back.” The driver replied, “This bus never goes back.”
The finality of the bus driver’s reply made it clear to Finkel he had not left his briefcase at the bus stop. He had no need for it because this day he would not be going to his office. His musing at the bus stop that perhaps he had died was no idle thought. He had died. The wall of his mind broke like that of a huge dam and all sorts of thoughts spewed forth in a torrent. He was too young to die. Not true. He had not been given any warning. True. He had not done everything he wanted to do. Probably true. Finkel remembered there was a cabinet he was building and not yet finished. Finkel was fond of saying he began building furniture in his spare time because it was cheaper than therapy, and besides, the wood did not talk back. Come to think of it, Finkel now mused, neither do therapists talk. He smiled believing he had unlocked the best kept secret of the medical profession. Therapists were in fact wooden cigar store Indians pretending to be doctors, the patients were in reality talking to a piece of wood. Perhaps the difficulty in relating to the therapist was because they came to sessions without the proper tools. Thoughts and recollections were not the stuff of therapy. The patients should have brought a saw, hammer, and nails.
The bus pulled into a large warehouse type structure and stopped. The driver said, “This is the end, everybody out.” No ambiguity here, Finkel thought. He and the other people exited the bus and he observed a huge area with many buses pulling in and out and thousands of people. Despite the vastness of the place and the number of people, there was complete silence. There were young people, middle aged and the elderly. No one carried luggage, except some youngsters clutched stuffed animals. Finkel noted most people had looks of resignations upon their faces, but many of the elderly had a genuine look of happiness and the weight of their years softened.
All the people silently joined one long line at the head of which was a desk and a uniformed attendant. Everyone was required to empty their pockets. Finkel did so and joined a line that moved rapidly. As he neared the head of the line he noted when a person went beyond the attendant, he or she either went to the right or the left, straight ahead, up or down, but no one, no one was ever rejected or turned back. He understood that like taxes, death was a certainty, but after spending an entire adulthood practicing law, his mind without prompting, began to think of a way out. He surmised the huge enterprise called Life and Death could not exist without rules and regulations and he considered the possibility of taking advantage of a technicality should one exist. He was uncertain there were rules and regulations but, as his mother used to say when he was young and refused to try something she had cooked, “Try it, just for the fun of it.” He thought he had nothing to lose.
When he reached the head of the line, he asked the attendant, “Excuse me, sir, but are there rules and regulations which govern these procedures?” The attendant, rather annoyed, replied, “There are.” Finkel asked to see them, and the attendant, now perplexed, said, “No one has ever asked to see them; all passed through on trust and you should do likewise.” Finkel insisted on seeing them. He was told that unless he moved beyond the desk, no one behind him could be processed. Finkel said he had no intention of moving until his request was honored. The attendant pulled out a sheet of paper which he said was a non-waiver agreement and asked Finkel to sign it, step forward so as not to hold up the line, and wait off to the side for the papers. Finkel, wary of signing anything and concerned that if he stepped forward beyond the desk there could be no turning back, refused.
Upset, the attendant faxed a message advising his superiors of the problem and was immediately told Finkel was within his rights and that his request must be honored. A large book was then produced and turned over to Finkel who quickly began thumbing through the pages. On page 38b Finkel noted a provision that stated no one was to be accepted for their final journey unless he or she was legally and accurately identified. Finkel asked to see the manifest covering his pick up, and the attendant, finally believing the impasse was at an end, looked through a batch of papers, pulled out the Kew Gardens Hills list, turned it over to Finkel and pointed to line 4, which stated Moishe Finkel, occupation: lawyer. Finkel immediately saw his “out” and told the attendant there was an inaccurate identification and a violation of the rules. “What are you talking about?” the attendant asked. “Wasn’t your mother’s name Lena Finkel and didn’t your father, mother and brothers and sisters all call you Moishe?” Finkel answered in the affirmative. “So you are the proper person. Please step forward.” “No my name is not Moishe Finkel,” he replied even though he did know that as a young child he was called Moishe by his family and relatives.
However, upon entering school, a birth certificate was produced indicating his name was David M. Finkel. While his middle name was Morris, and in Yiddish, the language his parents spoke, it was Moishe, the fact remained his legal name was David M. Finkel, and if a mistake had been made in the identification, that was not his problem. The attendant began to sweat profusely realizing a technical mistake of magnitude had been made and he was concerned that if Finkel went public with it, there may well be others who could make the same objection. He envisioned Finkel opening a law office on the spot advising entrants of their rights and creating much havoc. This would be unacceptable and another fax was sent resulting in a prompt reply that since Admissions made the error, it had to resolve it in a way that would not disrupt the orderly process.
While Finkel believed he was on the verge of a great victory it was short lived. The attendant, eager to have the last word, suggested Finkel’s victory may be pyrrhic, advising Finkel to look at paragraph 4b on page 56. He did so and noted it stated that if a mistake was made, it could only be rectified if the person was returned to his or her corpse before the dead body was discovered by any living person. Finkel asked where and at what time he died and was told it was 1 a.m. while asleep in his bed. He asked the current time and was told 4 a.m. Finkel knew his wife never got up before 6 a.m. and that gave him two hours to get back to his home. The attendant cautioned Finkel that he had an option to choose here: waive the error and accept what ultimately in any case would be his and everybody’s fate and pass through or return to his home before his wife wakes up. If he opted for the latter and did not make it, he could neither remain home nor come back here and he would then spend the rest of eternity no-where.
Finkel took many chances in his lifetime and was not averse to doing so. He also had no problems making decisions and being concerned in hindsight whether he was right or wrong. He decided to chance it. He asked for a bus that was going to Queens. It was pointed out and he boarded it and at 4:15 A.M. the bus pulled up in front of the Independent Subway at Queensboro Plaza in Long Island City. Finkel ran down the steps to the subway and upon putting his hand in his pocket realized he had no money or tokens, having emptied his pockets earlier. He was in a quandary, having never begged for money. Indeed, he grew up in Middle Village, a poor working class neighborhood in central Queens. He did not know why it was called Middle Village since it was not in the middle of anything. It was in fact surrounded by cemeteries and when young he thought it should be called Middle Cemetery. Perhaps it was really named Little Village which is what it was, and at some point an immigrant unfamiliar with the language called it Middle Village and the name stuck.
Finkel recalled as a young child growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, his parents having never accepted Home Relief, the equivalent of welfare, nor did their children accept free school meals. He never collected unemployment checks, not that there was anything wrong with doing so, and was continuously employed from the age of 14. His first job was delivering chickens on Thursday evenings for Hoffman the kosher butcher. He sold Italian and American flags at the local Catholic Cemetery on Memorial Day, shoveled snow, sold shoes, worked in a candy store and a hardware store, was an office boy, a bus boy, a waiter and then a lawyer. Distasteful to him as begging was, he was desperate, and facing no alternative he approached a middle aged man and asked for the fare. The man looked at Finkel noting he was well dressed and he refused. Finkel then surveyed the rest of the people at the booth and approached an elderly woman. Not out of any intention to do so, but because of his plight, he now looked deranged, and as he approached the woman and before he could say anything, she said, “Don’t hurt me. Take whatever you want.” Finkel insisted he only wanted a token which she gave him and he deposited it in the slot.
Finkel boarded the E train at 4:40 a.m. and it stopped at the Roosevelt Avenue station at 5:10. At 5:35 the train arrived at Union Turnpike, Finkel’s station. He ran out of the station down the hill to his home, getting there at 5:45, but then realizing all was lost because he had no key. He knew he could not ring the bell because his wife would then discover his corpse in bed. All the windows were locked and breaking any of them would surely awaken his wife. Attached to the roof of the garage was a screened in porch which had a door that led into Finkel’s bedroom. Finkel climbed the ivy on the side of the home, broke a screen and was now on the porch. He took a deep breath, hoping the porch door usually locked was not. It wasn’t, and Finkel gently opened the door and entered the bedroom. It was 5:55. His wife was asleep and next to her was Finkel’s corpse, his lips and finger tips tinged blue. Finkel undressed, pulled down the covers and got into bed. He looked at the bedside clock and saw it was exactly 6 a.m. His wife stirred, nudged him on the shoulder and said, “Get up, you will be late for the office.” Finkel replied, “I will no longer be going to work.” “What will you be doing?” his wife asked. “I shall bake a loaf of fresh bread,” he said. “What about tomorrow?” his wife asked. “I shall bake another loaf of bread,” he replied.
Finkel closed his eyes and smiled. He knew he had just won his most important and last case and since life is a series of chapters, having just closed one chapter, he looked forward to a new one.