A Sunday in May, 1893: stale cigar butts, gutter garbage, horse manure droppings, and a mild breeze blowing—I was on my way to Donovan’s Tavern on the Bowery to meet with Stephen Crane. It was a crisp Spring day in New York City, with a hard-working New York Sun trying to burn through a clutch of coal-scuttle clouds.
“Show yer a good time, Dearie?” an old-young prostitute leaned out of a slummy doorway—I could smell her cheap perfume—her showing a bit of bosom to my eye—far more than was Proper, back when a naked ankle, all that could be seen beneath a long skirt, could turn a Gentleman’s head—that, and “a goodly pair o’ poonts burstin’ out o’ a bodice” as the organ-grinder’s song went….
But I was late: I skidded ‘round an omnibus-horse-car, narrowly missed an old, bearded pedlar (perhaps a Jew; so many Jews thereabouts) selling warm, soft salted pretzels off long wooden sticks, stuck in a cane basket, as I almost tripped over a stray pug dog and fell onto a pushcart laden with buttons—buttons of all kinds, from tiny black buttons for ladies’ high-button shoes, to big brass frogs for the double-breasted scarlet greatcoat of the doorman at Luchow’s German Restaurant on 14th Street (Wiener Schnitzel und Bock Bier fur Two: Wunderbar!).
“Mark! My writing friend! Over here!” called a raspy, young-man’s voice, and I saw him, there, at a scuffed-and-scarry table outside of smoky Donovan’s, out in the innocent air: natty carnation in his buttonhole (from his brothel-keeping young-madam friend, Cora Taylor, back in their coldwater rooftop tenement flat), long black handrolled Cuban panatela clamped in one corner of his gleaming young smile, well-creased-and-battered fedora on his head: the King of New York, my muckraking tyro comrade, the Methodist Minister’s son (14th child, and baby of the family) from Newark, New Jersey: Stephen Crane.
I will always remember how he pluckt the cigar from his mouth, grinned like a boy who’s stolen an apple from a grocery-stand, stood up, and saluted me, beer-stein in his hand, and gave the slightest ironic bow, before taking a long swig, and laughing; laughing!
Seven short years, hundreds of newspaper articles and short stories, and two novels later—he would be dead, at age 28, and off to—where? No Heaven or Afterlife for him; he was a Realist: “There is no God, and He hates you.”
Rest in peace, my grinning, forever-young Friend; O Stephen! What promise we lost in you!