On the Road Via Green Tortoise, Part One

I decided it was time to leave New York City not long after I was attacked in the subway.

It was the late 1970s. I lived up on West 92nd Street in Manhattan, sharing an apartment with a tai chi teacher and friend and various other guys enthused about kung fu and karate and music and even God. (One young fellow from the South who stayed with us for a short time was a lay preacher struggling with what he really believed. I still remember his bearded face, his plain, articulate manner, and his genuineness.)

The core group of four or so of us used to go around Manhattan visiting different fencing salons to see how we stacked up. Or else we’d go over to Riverside Park and work out, play push hands or practice fencing.

NYsubwayBut I did need to earn enough money to live. Five nights a week just before midnight for about a year I took the subway down to West 23rd Street near Avenue of the Americas. I worked the “lobster shift” at a large ad and art book printer and typography house called Zimmering and Zinn. That name amused me, named after the two middle-aged proprietors, who often disputed in raucous and loud tones, to the hidden amusement of staff, about the right way to do important jobs.

The lobster shift ran from midnight to six in the morning for me. I negotiated a six-hour shift, since that gave me all the money I needed, and because the intense, painstaking scrutinizing of every tiny letter and space for correctness wore me out. I did good consistent work, and it was hard to get people for that shift, so they accommodated me.

[Nobody seems quite sure where “lobster shift” comes from. One source attributes it to the early morning hours being the best time to catch that critter, but another theory has it that the term comes from early newspaper production:

“(The term) comes from the red hands the typesetters had after setting the morning “red banner” headlines. When they went for their coffee, with their red-stained hands, they were often heckled as “lobster men” by the early morning workers.”]

subwaygrafOne early morning on the way back uptown to home, I foolishly sat in one of the last cars in the subway. These cars were prone to …problems since they were the farthest away from the operator or the conductor.

Sure enough at one stop a group of teenage boys moved up loudly through the car to where I sprawled bleary eyed. The largest of them waved a hatchet in my face and demanded my wallet. I remember thinking that hatchet looked just like the iron headed, worn wood shafted one I always used to cut kindling with back home in northern British Columbia. And it looked almost as dull.

Damned if I was going to give these jokers my wallet…

Somehow I leaped up and positioned myself with my back at the far end of the car against the internal door.

The biggest and bravest of this crew attempted to punch and kick at me, and I returned the favor trying to keep them back until the next stop. Nobody actually connected.

The stop came, the doors slid open, and I flailed aggressively enough to slip out the doors and onto the subway platform.

The fellow in the token booth looked on, unsurprised.

The subway whined back into motion and the last sight of my recent companions was of them high-fiving, laughing and waving the hatchet triumphantly out the window.

Along with being deeply angry and scared, I knew that I was fortunate that dark morning. And it put the seal on my growing restlessness about the dead end I was at in New York. It was time to move on.

I told myself if I went out to San Francisco, with the little bit of money I put aside, I could take another crack at the novel writing in a garret there, and I’d always had a hankering to go see the Golden Gate Bridge. And since I’d been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, somehow it seemed appropriate.

Over a few weeks I wound up my affairs, gave away most of my stuff, said goodbye to my friends, took a duffle bag and a backpack with clothes and books and made my way to where the Green Tortoise bus was waiting.

To be continued…

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11 Comments on “On the Road Via Green Tortoise, Part One”

  1. forestrat Says:


    Ever see any C.H.U.Ds while you were in the city? That’s what got Homer.

    I live in NY, but fortunately it’s a big state. The old saying is that it’s a nice place to visit, but you don’t want to live there. On the other hand I heard a couple of traveling suits talking at the Rochester airport and one of them described Rochester as a nice place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit there.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hey forestrat,

    Nope, never saw anyone pulled down into a manhole by deformed creatures, but that may have been just because I was looking the wrong way…

    I lived several years in Manhattan in different places… an experience I don’t regret, but the grime and the grunge and occasional danger, along with the insular feeling of the inhabitants that this was the world with a horizon only to the edge of Manhattan island made me eventually want to move on.

    Upstate New York is really beautiful, and I wish I could have spent more time there.


  3. Love New York stories, that’s a keeper. Love San Fransisco stories too. Let me guess – you got into Grace Slick’s pants!

  4. fencer Says:

    Hey, now, I’m not quite that old… but I am a little sorry that I got to San Francisco after the heyday of the 60s.

    Thing about blogging, I could make up a pretty good story along those lines, but I do try to follow the main lines of my faulty memory… meaning sticks to veracity, it seems like.


  5. qazse Says:

    fencer, good luck in SF

    Did you keep up with your roommates over the years?


  6. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Yes, I have off and on… maybe most recently a half dozen years ago. I should check them out again.


  7. K Says:

    Good story; good escape. I’m looking for the sequel.
    Your comments about selling up and moving out reminded me that youth had great advantages. We weren’t tied down by too many possessions. One could travel light and start all over again. Sometimes the moves were accompanied by some emotional baggage, but the clean slate syndrome had it’s great moments – and great stories.
    That’s a great shot of the rail car.

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi K,

    Yes, those were the days, not too burdened by things.

    Both rail car shots are not mine, unfortunately, but found on Google images.


  9. […] still had dreams of writing a novel, though. By the time being attacked in the subway showed me that the cosmos was urging me to move on, I was thinking San Francisco might be a cool […]

  10. Whatzername Says:

    I worked at Zimmering & Zinn for a couple months in 1975, proofreading on the day shift. I loved those guys. They gave me a raise on my second day, because the jobs had already stopped bouncing. In my memory the two men are always the age I am now. Oh, no, wait — I’m now about 10 years older than they would have been. Anyway, working for Z&Z was probably the best part of my ill-advised trip to NYC. I ran away from home at 28 and then back again after 10 or 11 weeks.

  11. fencer Says:

    Hi Whatzername,

    Well that’s amazing! Thanks for your comment. Sounds like you were at Z&Z maybe two-three years before I was.

    Those two guys and their lead staff were very fair with their employees, surprisingly so. They knew one secret of business, which is treat your people right.

    If you’re so inclined, tell us more of your story… or maybe you have a blog somewhere?


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