We poured out of class buzzing about the complex assignment we had been given. I am as dedicated to pursuing my history degree as anyone-there is a Ph. D somewhere far down the road–but didn’t these professors realize we had other courses? And jobs? And families?
My friend didn’t care about any of that. She grabbed me and started babbling about the morning drama at her job. She had arrived at the small historical house museum where she worked, where nothing had ever happened in this century, and found an ambulance and cops swarming all over the tiny park.
Even half-listening as I was, I thought it was a crime that made no sense at all. An old man was beaten badly enough to put him in the hospital, late at night in a Brooklyn park. Sadly, not an entirely unknown urban tale. But: this park was just a single square block and bordered a busy avenue at one end. There were no hidden leafy glades where evil might lurk. It was just a small playground, the charming colonial stone house behind it and a playing field behind that. And in this once bleak neighborhood, the biggest daytime danger now was a collision with an SUV-size baby stroller. The only nighttime gangs were crowds of office-casual young people leaving the chic bars and restaurants.
I wasn’t really listening. Then she mentioned the empty violin case they found on the ground.
* * *
The first time I saw him at the friendly little farmers market in the park he was glaring at the tiny children running and screaming in the playground. Like any New Yorker, I reflexively registered the wild gleam in his eyes and the clothes that might have come from a dumpster and just as reflexively classified him as someone to avoid.
The second and third and fourth times I saw him he was wearing a Santa hat and playing a violin. Ok, guess he wasn’t as crazy as I thought. In the weeks around Thanksgiving, as the market offerings shrank and segued from fall grapes to wreaths and holiday cookies, he was there every Sunday, playing the same clichéd Christmas tunes over and over. Judging by the violin case full of dollar bills at his feet, quite a few people enjoyed his third or fourth rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” I wasn’t one of them.
Then one hectic, chilly day I didn’t get there until it was nearly dusk. The only produce, so late in the day and late in the year, was the last of the apples and a few pumpkins. I was disappointed. I had become addicted to this market because of the tomatoes and beans that actually had flavor, the corn as sweet as sugar, the homemade baked goods and the cheerful interaction with the vendors. The unexpected bit of history was a bonus.
That day, though, I was kicking myself. I’d stolen an hour from the paper that was due tomorrow, for this? A few apples and the last whole grain bread in the entire market? My hands were cold; I had stepped in a puddle and that annoying violin kept on and on, one chorus of “Jingle Bells” after another.
Usually this place was a peaceful retreat in my too-busy life. I found it when I decided to reform a lifetime of deli meats and an extensive collection of take-out menus.
There was a giant greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza. I tried it just once and learned I didn’t have the time or patience for the locavore frenzy, and the bikes, the dogs, the baby strollers. Even with the huge choice of foods and the location, between the grand and grandiose memorial arch and the lovely entrance to Prospect Park, one sweaty claustrophobic visit was enough for me. Here, at this little strip of stands, I could pick up a winter squash, grab the last of the summer tomatoes, sample some homemade chutney, buy a pumpkin pie, and be done in ten minutes.
Sometimes I could even steal a few extra mental health minutes to sit in the playground and enjoy the ecstatic children running under the spray on hot days. I would give a moment to the young soldiers who died right here in 1776, losing the Battle of Brooklyn as part of Washington’s brave, rag-tag army. I could look over the sweet old-fashioned herb garden surrounding the stone house, refresh my memory of the modest exhibits on colonial life inside, and see what community programs they offered this weekend.
I also got a kick out of knowing this was a spot that should be sacred to all true Brooklynites. That shuttered Dutch colonial house was, later, the original home of the team that became the Brooklyn Dodgers, and was managed by the original Mr. Ebbets himself.
So what if the final layer of history is that the house is a 20th century rebuild from the original stones and plans, a project of city planning czar Robert Moses? Now it has become its own piece of history. It all speaks to me, when I have time to listen.
That day, I did not have time. The last of the merchants were breaking down the stalls and I was digging in my purse for warm gloves, when the music in the background finally stopped. I don’t think I realized, until I heard the silence, how tempted I was to rip the violin from his hands.
When it started again, it was something different, delicate and precise. And it was soft, barely audible. Was he playing just for himself? The music changed to scattered phrases I almost knew. Was that “I’ll Be Seeing You”? Then it became something else, classical again but now full of feeling. I don’t know anything about music but his playingseeped into my tired body and overstressed mind.
I moved closer to hear the muted sounds. His eyes were closed, and he seemed lost in the music. When he stopped I was so moved I surprised myself-my street smarts must have succumbed to the December cold–by walking right up to him, and saying, “You can play real music. What are you doing here in a Santa hat?”
And to think my family sees me as too impulsive.
He stared at me, unseeing, and then blinked and said slowly, “I play what makes money.” He turned away, scooping up the bills from the open violin case on the sidewalk, and packing up the violin. He was done, but I was not.
“That was beautiful. It was- it was like a hot cocoa…it made me feel…better.” I stopped, embarrassed. I didn’t have the right words. I speak history, not music.
“Can I give you something to say thank you?” I was fumbling in my purse for a stray dollar.
“Next time. Not for me, for my boys.” Then, money packed away, violin packed away, Santa hat replaced by a wool cap, he walked away himself.
My boys? He was old, not just elderly, really old. Too old to have children, easily old enough to have grown grandchildren and maybe some great-grand babies.
I caught up with him and said, “I don’t have much, but I’d be happy to help your boys. Are they very young? “
“Even the young ones aren’t very young. And the old ones are old. Like me.”
Then he disappeared down the subway steps.
* * *
As soon as I told an officer at the local police precinct that I knew an old man who played a violin in Washington Park, he told me to come right in. On the way, I thought about the last Sunday, when there was almost no produce left to buy.
I really went there to see him. He’d presented me with a mystery; I wanted to solve it. When he took a break, I handed him a Christmas cookie and a cup of hot cider from a vendor, dropped several bills in his case and said “Tell me about your boys.”
He looked surprised. Did he even remember me? I wasn’t sure, but at least he wasn’t glaring. Finally he said, “I take the money over to Fort Hamilton. The VA hospital. Holidays are hard for them. My way to help.” His words were slow, as if he didn’t talk much.
He moved away as he picked up his instrument, but I said, quickly, “So you were in the Army? ”
“Hell, no. Navy.” His expression softened just slightly. “I discovered this park when I was at the Navy Yard. Before I shipped out. Not many of us left, now, and less who can still get out and make a buck.”
My eyelids pricked.
“My granddad used to tell me how he helped build the battleship Missouri there, at the Yard.” I swallowed. “He’s gone now.”
“Like I said…”
“You can really play.”
“I used to be able to play some. Stiff fingers now.” He paused and then said, softly, “Navy gave me that, my chance to go to music school. After.”
The few words merged in my mind with grandpa’s stories and what I knew myself, and I had a picture of Brooklyn as it was during World War 11, when these very blocks were filled with boarding houses for the 70,000 or so Navy Yard workers streaming into town and the city was humming again, round the clock, after the despondency of the great depression.
I tell my students history is happening all around us. This strange derelict of a man was a living time machine.
* * *
At the precinct, an officer showed me a photo of the man they found, and even with the terrible bruising I could see that he was my mystery man. His wallet was gone, and his violin, but they had a possible ID. The abandoned violin case had a rusty, ancient nameplate in it. Jacob Willard. They were looking for more information on him.
And they were interested when I told them he was at the Greenmarket every week and his connection with the VA hospital. They were already canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses, and now they had more places to ask questions, but the next market day was four days off. What was he doing there, I wondered, on a weekday? In the middle of a cold night?
“Does he have any family?”
“Not that we’ve found. We’re looking. Hospital’s supposed to let us know if he has any visitors.”
“Can I visit him?”
The two officers glanced at each other and one said, “No reason you can’t if he’s up to it. But you’ll let us know if he says anything at all, ok? “
The nurse on the phone said he had moments of consciousness and I could visit briefly. I knew I would have to make that tedious trek to the trauma hospital in spite of the responsibilities pulling me in all directions. Somehow he had become my project. I wanted to hear the rest of his story, just as I wanted to hear my grandpa’s.
After twenty minutes trying to find my through the maze of color-coded corridors, I was finally in the right department. The nurse at the desk said, “Are you family?” When I said no, just a friend, she said, “Poor guy! He’s had no visitors except cops.” She pointed down the hall toward his room and added, “Just stay a few minutes. And be prepared – he looks pretty bad.”
That was an understatement. He was asleep or unconscious, attached to machines, with purple bruises on his face and bandages on his head and hands. His hands. Oh, God. His hands. He was a violinist.
He began to stir. His eyes fluttered a little, opened then closed again. He croaked out something that I finally understood to be water.
With my help, he sipped from a cup with a flexible straw, stopped, sipped some more. He squinted at me and croaked out “Who you?”
“I heard you were hurt. I know you from the Greenmarket at Washington Park.”
He squinted some more, and then said, “ Girl…questions.”
I’m hardly a girl but I smiled and took a chance that touching his arm was not overstepping a boundary. “That’s me. The lady with questions.”
“No questions. More water. “
I said, gently, “EMS found you. You were hurt. They’re trying to find out what happened to you.”
Tears trickled out from under his eyes. “Met a girl there. All those years ago. Prettiest girl in Brooklyn…prettier than Iowa girls…” Then he seemed to fall asleep again. A nurse came in to check his machines and told me it was time for me to leave.
The police officers were not too excited by what he’d said, but they told me they had confirmed his identity and had an address. When I promised I wouldn’t interfere with the investigation–I would stick to some public record searching–they gave it to me.
I assumed he was homeless, or at best, expected his address would be in a low-income project, or in one of Brooklyn’s most distressed neighborhoods, the kind of run down, illegal multiple residence that a man with almost no income could manage.
Imagine my surprise to see he lived at a well known, modest but highly respectable co-op complex in downtown Brooklyn under the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. Hmm. Not a derelict then, in spite of his frightening clothing.
I know very well how to find the paper trail, but it would not be fast or easy. Those lucky folks on History Detectives have a lot more time and funding than I did.
I went straight to a source for basic military records. Yes, there he was. His draft record showed he lived in Iowa. I wondered if he joined the Navy because he longed to see an ocean. More detailed records existed, but I couldn’t get them today.
The Social Security records I needed are closed to the public. The mid-century editions of the late, great local newspaper, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, are digitized only in an oddball source. I took a deep breath and prepared to struggle, and-aha!-my patient looking paid off. There it was, a blurry wedding photo, the bride in a street dress and veiled hat, and the groom in a Navy uniform. Ensign Jacob Willard of Ames, Iowa to Mary Pat Tierney of Brooklyn, at St. Augustine, 1944, with a reception in the church social hall.
St. Augustine is still there, just a few blocks away from where I sat. She must have been a neighborhood girl. Was she that prettiest girl in Brooklyn? The one he met in the park?
I couldn’t find his name again, so I tried a long shot and went into the online archived New York Times. And hit pay dirt. He was mentioned in an article from 1990 about a wave of retirement at the New York Philharmonic. He had been in the violin section for 35 years.
Yes, I guess he could play some. Now I had the man’s life in the blurry pages I was printing off the computer screen. I’m not a detective who solves crimes, but I am a kind of detective.
I called the crime-solving detective and told him what I found.
* * *
This was the week before Christmas. Chilly winter air, with the moisture off the harbor cutting right through winter clothes, and it was already dark as people left their offices. Much as I wanted to be home, with hot soup or a warming glass of Scotch, I impulsively left the bus many blocks away, when it stopped right in front of the playground. I sat on a bench in the cold dark, thinking about Jacob Willard and wondering why he had been sitting there, uncomfortably, so late at night. Through the dark, I heard a crying child insisting from the bordering sidewalk, “Playground now! Now! “ and an exasperated parent saying “It’s too cold. We are going home now!”
Then it was silent, except for the constant murmur of traffic coming from the avenue.
No one at all was in the playground itself. The stone house was closed, windows covered by immense red colonial shutters. It was too cold to sit still, so I walked around the park. I could not have said what I was looking for. I was just looking. I found the playing field behind the house was dark and empty. No one was there, in the park or on the adjoining sidewalks. I shivered. There were no answers – what had I been expecting? – and it was time to go home myself.
My eye was caught by light from a street lamp reflecting off a shiny jacket. Then I saw them, two teens or young men, in dark pants, bulky black winter parkas, black caps. I looked harder while stepping deeper into the shadows under a tree.
They moved furtively, trying to stay in the shadow of the building. I could barely see them, but I could hear them more clearly than they would have wanted. Their voices were weirdly loud and excited; I was sure they were high on something.
“This time we get in, get stuff to sell. Always stuff to sell in a museum, right? Try not to do anything stupid this time.”
“Shut the fuck up. Hey! I need that thing – not that one! – that one. Now, come on,” he said to the tool, “just let’s get this blade in. Right. Here.”
My street-smart brain told me to leave right now, immediately, but I was not sure I could without attracting their notice. And the real truth is that my curiosity got the better of my brain and glued my feet to the spot.
I caught a clanking sound and the gleam of metal. Not a gun. Tools. They were under a window at the back of the museum, furthest from any sidewalk. They were wrestling with those wooden shutters.
My mind whirled with a jumble of thoughts. I was scared, sure, but also outraged -they were robbing a tiny struggling history museum-and puzzled. Why were they robbing such a modest place, where the only value was the history? There was no priceless art or jewels.
I looked for the nearest park entrance. On the street, in the light, up on the busy avenue, I could call 911.
They fumbled, cursed, worked on the window frame. One of them said, “That old guy, ya know, ya didn’t need to go apeshit like that. “
“Me? Me? He was the one…Hold it, yeah, give me an extra hand here…”
I should go around to the other side of the building. As soon as I turned that corner, they would not be able to see me, and I could slip out the gate, up the dark block next to school and the safety of open stores and restaurants.
A clanging sound and a stream of curses. Someone had dropped a heavy tool on a toe.
More curses, but this time, the curser was looking at me. I froze, willing myself to be invisible.
He punched his companion, who looked up, and now they were both walking towards me.
I walked away briskly, acting as if I had not seen them and was just going about my business. I heard them running up behind me and knew they did not buy it.
I ran. Who knew I could run this fast? Fear had completely overcome curiosity. I was far from an entrance but here, there was only low stone wall dividing the park from the sidewalk. I could scramble over it easily. I could leap it if I had to.
I passed a trash can at the edge of the patch and slammed my arm into it without stopping, in some panicked hope that it would crash onto the walk and slow them down.
I was running so fast, and breathing so hard, I wasn’t even sure if I heard it hit the ground. I headed for the avenue, and lights, and safety, afraid to stop to make a call, and burst into the sleek bar on the corner. Lungs burning, I gasped out to the bartender, “911.
* * *
The cops eventually found them. The tools were left behind and were identified; someone else had seen them running; they were, in the end, not so hard to track down. As the nice detective told me, most criminals are actually pretty dumb. I will probably have to testify at a trial eventually.
I went to see Jacob a few times and sometimes I would catch him when he was fully there.
Bit by bit, he told me all about the pretty girl he met ice skating in Washington Park, introduced by a Navy buddy who knew her from their block; the hurry-up wartime wedding; the ecstatic few weeks they had before he shipped out; the cold water tenement they shared while he was at Julliard. All the long happy years when he made music and she made their life.
I could read between the lines to see what happened when she died. There were no children, old friends were dying, she was the sociable one. I guessed that days went by when he did not talk to a single soul.
The night he was attacked was their anniversary. He was sitting there all alone, remembering, feeling her presence in the place where they had met, and he went into a blind rage when some young thugs tried to hurt that place. It felt like sacrilege.
I made him a book, a kind of scrapbook with his own words typed up, printouts of his draft record, the newspaper stories, and old photos of the park. He was fully awake the day I brought it over, and he could not get over seeing his memories made tangible on paper. It seemed to bring out a flood of stories, and when he drifted off he was holding the book and murmuring, “We are…still here…remembered…in here.”
He passed away a few days later, sitting up in bed with the book open to his wedding picture.
And I do remember.
This story first appeared in the second edition of Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices, a collection of short mysteries set in New York’s less famous neighborhoods.
© Triss Stein