Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I Ain’t Coe

By the time I met him, Arthur Wallace had no teeth, continually chewed on a cigar and kept his money in a velvet Crown Royal pouch. He was living at the Duplex Nursing Home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Though neither of us knew it, he was in the last year of his life. He was 86 and had an opinion on just about everything. Thankfully, much of what he had to say was informed a lifetime of interest in politics and world events. Some of his information was positively arcane and peppered with unverifiable details. Fascinated by Russia, as well as by certain varieties of liquor, he had thematically conjoined anecdotes of at least two of that country’s twentieth century leaders. “Khrushchev had one big problem: drinkin’ too much booze. But he done all right, he was a strong man. His weakness was takin’ gifts of wine and drinkin’ ‘em, see? He was a wino, see? That was his weak point, see?” And on his predecessor: “Stalin was a whiskey drinker. He bought his whiskey in South Boston, and he used to buy seven different brands of tobacco mixed together, in Scully Square. Stalin was a heavy smoker, too, see? Stalin never drank vodka, he drank whiskey, Mr. Boston Whiskey from South Boston.”

Arthur ran a newsstand in Harvard Square for decades until, as he told it, he got jumped one too many times. Ken Eglin was another man who lived at the home who was about twenty years younger than Arthur. He frequently claimed that, as a boy, he would bombard the newsstand with snowballs. Ken delighted in retelling these hijinks and found it hilarious, while Arthur couldn’t have cared less. I thought it was sheer poetry the way their lives had intersected again.

Not one to tolerate any additional discomforts (since he already had a litany of such affronts as sore feet, itchy throat and busted hearing aids), Arthur’s commentaries would condense his needs into simple blunt phrases such as, “The idea is, when it’s too hot, get the hell out of the sun!” He also had a penchant for longer narratives, sometimes embellishing as he went along. Many times his audience would be some guy who had fallen asleep sitting next to him in the smoking room, Arthur either not noticing or not caring. There was also me, writing things down as fast as I could.

I got grabbed as a different person. I was grabbed and followed for someone else a couple of times.
I was crossin’ the Boston Common to go down to Dartmouth Street in the year 1916, and there was a wild lookin’ guy lookin’ for another guy named Coe, a Yale student. There was a $15,000 reward for him, dead or alive. Now, because I was dressed like Coe would be dressed, they thought I was him. So they run for the cops and pointed at me as the missin’ Coe. So I had to obey the orders of the cops. The cop says to me, “Who are you?” and I says, “I’m Arthur A. Wallace.” And he says, “Where are you goin’?” and I said, “I’m going to Dartmouth Street.” And he says, “Oh! You’re going to Dartmouth Street? You must be Coe – you must have amnesia!” This guy’s missin’ from the rich end of Dartmouth Street, number one Dartmouth Street. But I was runnin’ an errand on Dartmouth Street for my brother’s tailor shop.
So they legs me down to the house of Coe, and I had to stay there with the cop ‘til they got the mother of Coe – she had to come up from Connecticut. She gets there and the mother says, “My boy looks like him, but take his measurement.” So I took my shoes off and they measured me – five-feet, four-and-a-half inches. “Oh,” she says, “my boy’s five-foot-seven.” Then she asks, “How old are you?” and I said “Twenty-two-and-a-half.” “Oh,” she says, “my boy is twenty-seven.
So, after keepin’ me in there for hours, and bringin’ in all kinds of people to look me over, they finally let me go since I was not Coe, see? Then I got outside that place and everybody was lookin’ for Coe. There was $15,00 reward for him, dead or alive.
And then another guy in Arlington mistakes me for him! Some woman starts yellin’ at me, “Hello Mr. Coe! Hello Mr. Coe!” I says, “For chrissake lady, I ain’t Coe! Stop callin’ me Coe!” They were all lookin’ for Coe because they wanted the reward. First it was $5,000, then it went to 10,000, then it went to $15,000. They never found him though.
The funny part of this whole thing was that this guy Coe was born in November, too. But I was born at the beginning of the month and he was born in the middle. That’s kind of a funny thing.

I wish everyone could hear Arthur’s voice the way I still do. I can imagine him interacting with waitresses at the coffeeshop, asking road workers for the particulars of what they’re doing, walking to the post office to buy one stamp and mailing a letter, or just sitting on a bench in the park and holding forth with whomever might happen by.

- David Greenberger