It was after two o'clock that afternoon. We were taking our French test in Mr. Boffman's class. We took one every week. Some student aide from the principal's office came in and quietly handed Mr. Boffman a note. Boffman read it silently, then said in a very low voice that this was indeed serious.
He then told everyone to stop, even if they hadn’t finished, and pass their test papers up to the front of their row. We were used to this procedure, but something was different. There was a hush. Then an announcement came on the classroom speaker.
It was the principal, "I must inform you all that the President has been shot. All students are directed return to their home rooms and will then be discharged for the day." Boffman told us to stand and file out in an orderly fashion. He always had an extremely witty and sarcastic put-down when students said anything in class that could be interpreted as a boast or groundless claim. This time there were no witty, or sarcastic joke from Boffman. It was eerie, almost like "leave, and be quick about it."
I remember filing into the hallway and feeling the crush of students like two currents in a tumultuous ocean heading in opposite directions, each on the right side. There was a low roar, and one loud student yelling as if he'd been disturbed from of his slumber, "The President's been shot, the President's been shot. You'd think he was the fuckin' king."
I thought that remark was gross. But as reluctant I was to admit it, I thought there was a kernel of truth nestled in the loudmouth's gutsy cynicism. Though it felt scary like great buildings falling all around you. I wondered what was going on and who was in charge now. I had always thought that history, like World War II, had happened before I was born, and nothing more would probably occur for a long time, perhaps the rest of my life. But something both incredible and important had just happened. And this took the cake. You wanted to make sure your feet remained steady under you.
We all got out of school pretty quickly that day. I had got on the subway and headed down to Midtown Manhattan where I had an after-school job as a messenger. I figured there would still be messages to be delivered and some money to be earned. But everyone who had a radio had it on. It was reported the President was dead, and a new one had been sworn in. Gee, that was fast.
When I got to my job in the diamond district, everything was strangely astir. Businesses were closing early and people were already leaving work and heading home. I sensed there was only one topic that concerned people that afternoon. As I walked into the messenger service, there was business still being done but at a quickly slowing pace.
We had a lot of ad agencies who we did business with, picking up and delivering their messages to other business offices. One came in from BBD&O, and our dispatcher George gave it to me for a pick up and to be delivered to photographic studio. These studios were really cool. They had models who were out of this world. I had been to them a number of times.
But Mr. Todd, the owner of my employer was an on-premises hands-on boss. He said, "No, George. Give the assignment to Ernie. Send Benny home for the day. I don't need him this afternoon."
"But Mr. Todd. Benny'll get the job done. Then he can head home without having to come back to the office," George protested.
"Nah. Just send the kid home."
"Okay. But at least pay him for the day. He came in and is going to miss a day's pay."
"You're right, George," Mr. Todd admitted, already irritated. "Pay him for his time here, no more."
"Okay, Mr. Todd."
My face soured. I couldn't help it, but didn't say a word. And George, looking over at me, seemed to notice.
He was a pretty good dispatcher, a wonderful human being, but mostly he knew when to keep his mouth shut. And in front of Mr. Todd, that's what was the safe thing to do.
A phone call came in to Mr. Todd, and he was tied up after that. I had to go the men's room.
When I got back, Mr. Todd was gone. George called me over and despite Mr. Todd's instruction he gave me a delivery to do for a package that was already in the office.
"Here you can deliver this up near Riverside drive. It's from a big movie studio and goes to this composer. If Todd questions me on it, I can tell him no one else was willing to do it because they wanted to get home quickly on account of the assassination, and they wanted to watch the news."
"But George, he may find out when he comes in Monday."
"Don't worry, Benny. He won't remember anything. Today and the weekend will be a blur of history with the assassination and everything. I'll see you get paid for an afternoon, half hour short of a day's pay. Like I said don't worry."
George was a gem. And truly, he was advancing his employer's interests, even though Mr. Todd took a kind of sadistic pleasure in shortchanging his employees.
I took the package and the subway up to the nineties on the west side. And then walked over to Riverside Drive. The composer lived up on the tenth floor, and I was excited to see him in person. I was familiar with several of his soundtracks and loved them for their bold sweep. The elevator had that old building smell. I sensed my anticipation rising as I came to his door in this large apartment building.
When I rang his bell, there was no answer for a while.
"Oh crap," I thought.
Finally, an old woman opened the door after inquiring who it was.
She apologized, "I'm sorry. I was listening to the news. Terrible, you know."
"Yes, I know."
She took the package, explained to me that her son was away, and told me to wait. She came back to the door and tipped me a whole dollar. I was surprised by her generosity.
As I left the building began heading home, it had started to rain with intermittent big fat drops. I stared at the pavement and it was getting polka-dotted with rain. I wondered how long before the spots would join up and become one even sheet of dark gleaming sidewalk. Sure enough it was
happening before my eyes. It felt like heaven was crying.
I wondered when was the last assassination in American politics. I happened to know that someone was trying to shoot FDR and instead killed Mayor Cermak of Chicago. That indeed was a long time ago. But long-forgotten history had a way of reminding you it was still there.
Then the feeling, more than a thought, came over me, "Maybe he was the fuckin' king."