Magical Horatio St. led me to Sal’s inspiring story
By Kathryn Adisman
It happened on Horatio — a street I came to love during the 13 months (Sept. 28, 2007 — Oct. 31, 2008) I sublet a sunny pied-à-terre overlooking a garden — just five short blocks from my own dark cave (undergoing renovation, on Jane St. east of Eighth Ave.) and a universe away.
It’s possible to conjure an alternate life, I discovered, simply by moving at an angle a few degrees from your own. Hence, Horatio signaled a magical interlude from my real life.
Ever since I returned “home” to Jane St., whenever I had a problem I didn’t know how to solve — I’d head west on Horatio and let the block work its magic.
This past February during the endless winter, my hip was the problem; walking had become painful — the arthritic effects of long-ago knee surgery. Thus, I found myself back on my old block on Horatio, pausing to massage the bad hip, when a stranger came up behind me.
“Are you all right?”
I turned to recognize a familiar figure I’d seen around the neighborhood — senior in a baseball cap, glasses, cane — who’d attracted my attention, less for any disability than for an air of “dignity” I couldn’t place.
“Oh, it’s just fallout from an old injury,” I confided, grateful for a sympathetic ear, unburdening myself about the domino effect of pain, which had spread, from knee to hip.
“Join the club!” He welcomed me.
As someone who has taken dance class all her adult life and prides herself on her ability to cope with pain, it wasn’t a club I was eager to belong to. I felt suddenly annoyed and embarrassed to be admitting weakness to this senior on a cane. Who was he to take pity on me? He mentioned shrapnel in his leg from an old war wound. Well, I thought, that trumps my arthritis! This guy seemed to know something about pride.
“Sal — Sal Conte,” he introduced himself, extending a hand, then, almost as an afterthought: “Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?”
We were standing in front of a gate a few doors from my old building. Horatio was working its magic once again.
“Sure,” I said, impulsively, without quite knowing why.
Sal’s place was hidden from the street. I followed him through the gate, which opened into a long corridor that led to a secret courtyard in back. The door to Sal’s place was across the courtyard, completely secluded. He was the only one left, and the landlord was trying to get him out, he said matter of factly, as if we were discussing the weather.
It was a common New York story. Had I read about Sal in the real estate section? Instead, he handed me two recent articles on the treatment of political prisoners, which featured a photo of Salvatore Conte, who I learned was a Korean War P.O.W. who’d been brutally tortured.
Sal’s hideaway, which he referred to as “my cabin in the woods,” was sealed off from the outside world, like an airtight ship’s cabin, fitted with all manner of things for the voyage back in time. I felt instantly at home, but I didn’t nose around: I’m not here to take notes for a story, I told myself, and my leg is killing me.
I parked on the leather sofa and didn’t budge, while Sal boiled the water for green tea and spoke of his plans to repaint the rent-stabilized studio, as if he expected to stay another 50 years.
As I glanced around, my eye lit upon a prominent glass ashtray on the coffee table. A smoker, ahah! A chance to bum: Parliaments menthol? Didn’t know they still sold that brand.
“You smoke?” Sal looked hopeful — meaning he could. In fact, I quit before 9/11, I was about to explain, when…something unusual caught my interest behind me on a banquette: the pièce de résistance — a large fake fish mounted on a plate in the place of honor. It was a gift from his daughter: The Talking Fish.
Every time Sal passed, just the shadow was enough to trigger the fish, projecting its head and mouthing off snappy one-liners in a “Hey Babe” dirty-old-man voice. It was obnoxious, and endearing, at the same time. I wish I’d written down a few of the friendly fish’s witticisms. Alas! I didn’t want to — I wasn’t there for a story. But wanting one or not, I was destined to get more than I bargained for.
“Did you know Victor?” Sal set my cup and saucer down and joined me for a cigarette.
“Victor, the actor?” My neighbor on H Street — I’d hear him breathing down the stairs. Victor and I always seemed to be leaving the building after everyone else was gone. Last July, the day before I scattered my cat’s ashes beneath the tree in the garden behind Horatio, I was watching “Law & Order,” and there was Victor on TV, playing a bad guy who has…emphysema! The way Victor tells it, the director and other actors didn’t know he had emphysema in real life.
Well, it turns out, through Victor, Sal met actress Estelle Parsons, whose husband was Richard Gehman, a journalist (this was back in the ’50s). They met for lunch at Toots Shor’s — a legendary restaurant even I had heard of — and spent weeks holed up like a pair of Hollywood screenwriters tape-recording Sal’s memories.
Out of an old brown leather briefcase, Sal produced a yellowed original issue of Argosy magazine. The size of my children’s Highlights, it seemed to evoke another America, circa 1950-something. This was the first-person narrative that Gehman had assembled from Sal Conte’s account of his ordeal at the hands of Chinese communist guards, when he was taken captive — how he survived seven months in a box smaller than a coffin and won two Purple Hearts.
I tried to read the pages, complete with illustrations, but my eyes blurred. My brain refused to retain the dimensions of the cage: 2½ by 3 by 5 feet. After all, it’s too much — even to read about. It wasn’t inspiring; it was surreal. I valiantly refused to write anything down.
What I remember: What kept him from going crazy — how he took a string from a hand towel that was among his personal property, and another and another, and wound, string by string, something the size of a baseball.
“I played baseball,” he said. “I knew what a baseball felt like.”
That stuck. Also, how sneaking a glimpse of a fellow prisoner made him feel better.
The long-term effects of torture “grounded me,” he said, as he glanced at a photo of fellow P.O.W. Chuck, smiling on his bulletin board.
Chuck passed away recently. Sal knew where he himself would be buried: “At Arlington Cemetery.”
I was wrong on one thing, though. Sal didn’t feel his P.O.W. past trumped what others had suffered: “It’s relative,” he said.
I wish I’d asked him what he did after the war, but again I told myself: I’m not here for an interview.
From Sal, I took away not just a half tab of OxyContin “for pain,” a smoke and a story I wouldn’t forget, but something more valuable: the courage to keep walking.
“Be careful,” Sal cautioned me, telling me to watch my footing on the ramp outside his door.
“Don’t worry,” I turned, with a big, wobbly smile.
A week later I’m at La Bonbonniere diner, the last greasy spoon in the neighborhood, writing down everything I can remember about my encounter with Sal Conte. I’m about to exit when…Sal appears — on cue — as if I conjured him.
“It’s fate, destiny,” he says. Because of what he’s seen, Sal believes in fate. Hanging his cane on a hook, he takes a seat at the counter and orders his lunch: scrambled eggs — same as mine.
It turns out he was in the restaurant/bar business. That’s why his place was dark; he liked it that way because he worked nights.
“You know Johnny’s?” he asked.
Well, Sal (probably everyone in the neighborhood knew this, except me) was the Sal half of McSal’s Alley — the other co-owner was Brian McKenna — the bar at 12th St. and Greenwich Ave., before it was Johnny’s.
Once upon a time I bartended at Johnny’s! But that’s another story… .
Had I joined the club of neighborhood characters overnight? I’d lived in the West Village 25 years, and it felt like somebody had just opened the door: “Welcome home!”