My father would sometimes hold his hand over an open flame to show me the power of a man’s will. He lived in a boatyard, in a part of town where old sloops and schooners were towed into the black shallows to rot. He would salvage what he could from the listing hulks to employ in the construction of a vessel of his own design – a cement-bottomed ketch he christened Eileen to spite my mother for throwing him out after finding him with a woman of that name.
He lived in a shack beside the scaffold where the boat’s hull sat cradled in a network of timbers that I would climb upon even though I was forbidden to touch anything without his express permission. He slept during daylight hours and worked by night, sometimes on the boat but more often than not driving a checker cab in Manhattan or Queens. He used to say that every man should have a crazy dream that he has no right to believe in, and the boat was his. I was twelve years old then and he’d been dreaming that boat before I was born.
He used to hit me when he was drinking so I stayed away if I heard him ranting from within but if he was singing or playing his mandolin I knew it was safe to go inside. He would suffer my presence with some anxiety however. His breathing would quicken and sometimes his hands would shake, but I would tidy up the place and pack his Meerschaum pipe, so he let me stay. My face reminded him of something he’d rather not remember, for he rarely looked me in the eye unless he had some wisdom to impart and on such occasions he always addressed me as boy.
He held his hand over a candle that sat on a table surrounded by piles and piles of coins. Towers of nickels, dimes and quarters sat before him as well as several piles of dollar bills. He stared at the money like it was a player in some game of cards about to lay down a hand. Slowly, like some conjurer, he swept his soot-stained palm over the candle flame allowing the fire to dance through his splayed fingers
“Boy,” he said, “The mind is the lord of the body. Pain is an illusion. Failure is a weakness. Submission is a betrayal of the self.”
Then he swept the candle and all the money off the table in a single, violent stroke. A hailstorm of coins peppered the far wall. Coins were spinning and wobbling on the floor as paper money fluttered down around me like autumn leaves.
“It’s not enough”, he said. “Not even close”. And he stormed out of the shack, banging the door so hard behind him that it sprung back open before creaking slowly closed on rusted hinges. I looked at the money on the floor. I thought it was a fortune. Only later did I learn that it was all the money he had in the world.
I sat there on a milk crate watching the last of the spinning coins as it wobbled to rest before my shoe. Something about it caught my eye. I bent over and picked it up. It was nickel, with a buffalo on one side and a grinning skull on the other. It was dated 1936 and it was tarnished and worn smooth and I held it in my hand like it was the key to the whole puzzle.
He stood at the foot of the scaffold looking up at the unfinished boat. Her lines were as smooth and graceful as a swan’s and I thought I saw a tear in his eye. But it may have just been the light. He turned then and he saw that I was holding something in my hand. I gave it to him. He studied it for a moment, squinting like a jeweler and then he smiled. I don’t remember him ever smiling like that.
“They call this a hobo nickel”, he said. “Bindle-stiff folk art. Back in the Depression they used to make them to kill time, to express themselves. Man’s creative energy shall not be tamed. Sitting in the back of some boxcar maybe, or some Podunk hoosegow”
He put his hand on my shoulder then, and that was so foreign to me that it felt awkward and strange. He pressed the coin into my palm and looked up at the boat.
“She’s beautiful isn’t she?” He said. And I said that she was.
“You’d never think she’d float let alone sail, but she’ll go like the wind and never capsize in a storm”, he said.
Then he struck the hull of the boat with a closed fist. He punched it repeatedly and I could hear the sound of his flesh and bone. But he didn’t say a word. He held his broken hand out to me, to show me how a man’s will worked, and it was bloodied across the knuckles and hung there like something he picked out of the trash.
“Take a last look Jim”, he said. “She’ll never sail, never float, never feel the wind”. Then he walked away.
They locked him out of the boatyard after that and the next time I went there the scaffolding was torn down and the Eileen was lying on her side with her hull stove in like she’d been washed up after a hurricane. I only saw him a few more times after that. I don’t know where he went or what ever happened to him. But I still have that hobo nickel. It reminds me of a man’s will. The vanity of that. The waste. Dreams are dangerous, and sometimes deadly. My father taught me that. Hobo nickels. By the ten thousands they made them, and every one of those was a dream too.