The Shamrock is 10 blocks due south of my office. The food is good, the price is cheap, and the service is quick. Everything has an Irish flavor to it, and unless you make a special request for them you will get a grilled tomato with your eggs instead of french fries. I eat lunch there three times a week.
Hack stands surround the Shamrock. Many of the patrons at lunch hour are taxicab drivers who come from far and near. They can be recognized by the emblematic three-cylinder change holders strapped to their ample bellies. They talk sports to each other—Yankees and Mets in the summer, Giants and Jets in the fall, and the New York Knickerbockers in the winter (never hockey, tennis, or golf)—and they eat fast.
The other large group at lunch are those from the neighborhood: Irish widows, spinsters, and homemaker wives of working-class men. They eat slowly and talk of the latest doings at St. Monica’s or their next trip to the old country to see family. Chrissie, my regular waitress, told me that they are bad tippers and that she prefers the taxi drivers, who know what tipping is all about.
One day I saw a new couple at lunch at the Shamrock. The man was nice looking, about 50, and dressed like a Wall Street banker in his chalk-striped gray suit. The woman who sat across from him was a sight. She was 75 or so, with an old-fashioned dress down to the ankles and a matching hat with a veil. She had to lift the veil and remove her white gloves to eat.
"He is probably her portfolio manager discussing the annual performance of her bonds," I thought. Maybe he was a kind nephew taking eccentric Aunt Hattie out to lunch for a treat. They were too far away for me to hear them, but the conversation looked very civilized.
I saw them again about 2 weeks later. I was lucky in that they sat across from each other in the adjoining booth where I could hear every word. They were just receiving their order from Chrissie.
"I distinctly said medium-boiled egg. That egg is hard-boiled. And I asked for toast, not two slabs of charcoal. Go back and get my son’s order right," she said quietly but imperiously.
"Aw, Mom. It’s okay," he said.
"It’s not okay," she insisted, and sweet Chrissie, stung, replaced the food on her tray and ran back to the kitchen.
"His mother," I said to myself. "This poor man has to endure such hectoring and belittling twice a month. A respected businessman comes up from the financial district to see this crone and then gets nothing but hell for his effort." As usual, I had lingered too long eavesdropping and paid my check at the cashier, quickening my step back to the office.
The next week was one of those killer July heat spells we have every summer in New York. The air didn’t circulate, and the pollutants usually blown to sea hung in the air. The slightest move made one sweat, and I was walking back from the Shamrock in shirt sleeves. By now, many of my patients were away, so I walked back slowly, seeking out the shady places. It was then that I saw them emerging from an expensive renovated brownstone. He was wearing the same heavy gray suit, and she was in her full regalia, clutching his arm like a bird of prey. I was behind the two of them for no more than 30 steps, but I heard enough.
"You will just have to let that woman go. I think she dropped that vase on purpose. Help these days! There was a time when a young woman would have been eager to earn a few dollars." Mr. X said nothing. As I turned on my way I realized that the poor man didn’t just go to lunch with her, he lived in her house! And very likely there is no father, so the household management was up to him. What a life: 50 years old and answering to his mother like a whipped schoolboy. I had the whole situation worked out in my head by the time I got to my office.
My next visit to the Shamrock wasn’t until the week after Labor Day, with summer vacation behind me. Chrissie was taking my order.
"How is that nice grandson of yours?" she asked.
"Funny you should ask," said I as I whipped out a new snapshot. "He is just over 1 year old—his birthday was in July—this picture is from his birthday party."
"Oh, he is getting so big now," she said. "I think he looks like you a bit."
I was pleased. "I’ll take that as a compliment."
When Chrissie returned with my lunch, I asked her, "Have you seen Mr. X and his mother at all?"
"The old woman passed on over the summer, I heard. Poor man." She involuntarily grasped her pendant crucifix as she said this.
I ate my lunch. "Poor man indeed," I thought. That’s not the way I saw it. Free at last! Free at last! Out from under the thumb after 50 years. He has probably sold that wretched brownstone, the Bates Motel, to the first bidder and bought a nice cheerful place downtown. He is likely having lunch at the Four Seasons, not the Shamrock luncheonette, this very afternoon and having a high old time of it. Thus did I weave a whole drama for this man to whom I had never said a word.
St. Patrick’s Day is the big holiday for the Shamrock. Green bunting hangs from the walls, and decals of harps, leprechauns with little pipes in their mouths, and, yes, shamrocks were affixed to all windows. The carte de la maison features soda bread, black and white pudding, and flat Irish sausage patties. The waitresses and busboys wear green top hats. By 3:00 p.m., every seat will be filled with participants and observers of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Everyone is smiling and acting a bit tipsy even if they are not.
After lunch I made a quick stop at the men’s room in the back of the restaurant. It was when I got out that I saw him. Mr. X. He was seated alone in a two-person booth. I immediately noticed that he had gained at least 20 pounds; the button on his collar and the top button of his trousers were open to accommodate his girth. He was in his familiar gray suit, but the suit was now crumpled and stained. His hair was messy. His formerly clean-shaven face now sported a 2–3-day graying stubble, and his face was puffy. His eyes stared down unmoving at the bowl of porridge he was eating. I found this all unnerving, but most unnerving was the slow, manneristic, expressionless way he ate his oatmeal. He would lift the tablespoon, place it on the upper surface of the oatmeal, and move it away from him the polite way one is taught to eat hot soup. He blew on the half-filled spoon before each mouthful as if to cool it, even though the oatmeal was clearly quite cold by now. He looked like a derelict, poor man.
Chrissie had been far wiser than I.
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