Emil Schupp always sat on the same stool at the end of the counter in Artie's Luncheonette at 223 West 14th Street. Artie was my father and he let me help out at the grill one summer. Every morning, same time, same stool, same toast and tea and tomato juice, Emil sat there for exactly an hour, calculating bowling averages. Until, after watching him for three months, I tried a little experiment.
This was 40 years ago. I was 13. Emil was about 65. When we first met, Emil said my name out loud, then repeated it backwards. I was Eetserk Eedna. He did this with everyone. We called Emil Schupp "Puh-push Lime," with a little stutter on the P. Or simply, "Mr. Puh-push."
He was one of Dad's tenants in the single-room boarding house above the luncheonette and an obsessive-compulsive 3-ring circus.
Emil kept a written record of the times he turned on and off every light in his place. He kept a running total for each bulb, keeping an eye on how close it was getting to the manufacturer's promised life-expectancy printed on the package. With a 1000-hour bulb, he started getting anxious around hour 800 and set out a fresh one next to the reading lamp on his nightstand. It was on deck. If a bulb died after only 500 hours, he wrote an irate note to G.E. or Sylvania and started checking his mail exactly a week later. He once showed me a free six pack of 75-watt Soft Whites he got, along with a letter of apology.
Up in his apartment Emil had a dozen pairs of identical black dress shoes that he polished every Sunday, even the ones he hadn't worn. Sometimes I helped him, but I had to follow his instructions to the letter. He kept them lined up against the wall by his bed and covered with a long sheet of wax paper to keep off the dust. Once a week he shook the paper out the window. Once a month he rolled out a fresh sheet.
He was very particular.
He wore a suit and hat every day and he always smelled like baby powder. The plump body under his clothes must have been as dry and white as a powdered donut.
At the lucheonette, Emil never spread the pats of butter that came with his breakfast. He centered the yellow square tiles perfectly on the brown square toast and let them melt slowly while he unfolded his paper napkin and centered it on his lap.
Every Friday night, while my father was working, Emil and I went bowling together. Dad felt bad for him because he was alone and said it wouldn't kill me if once a week I acted like the grandson he never had. We went to Bowlmor Lanes over on University Place. Emil didn't trust the food there--French fries and hot dogs--so for snacks he always brought along two strange, dry foreign cookies that I'd never seen anyone else eat. One for me and one for him.
Emil would unpack his bowling shoes and mint-condition ball, then spend half an hour picking though the alley balls until he found one that was weighted and balanced perfectly for me.
I was a lousy bowler. Because, like everything, I never took it as seriously as Emil took, well, everything. But after each ball he'd say, "Not bad, but move your approach one board to the right and aim one board to the left of the second arrow." And I'd roll again and pick up maybe two pins. "Okay," he'd say, "now try moving forward half a shoe and twist your wrist five degrees."»
Emil worried about my game, not his. He had plenty of time to practice alone during the week when the alleys were empty and he could concentrate.
When we finished three games, he'd fold up the score sheet, in eighths, and take it home with him to analyze the data. The next morning, at his regular stool in the luncheonette, he'd explain what I needed to work on if I wanted to raise my lifetime average by one pin.
So one Saturday morning he shows up at the luncheonette, excited as usual. With his shiny shoes and baby smell and the notebook containing every stat on every game we ever bowled together, and he heads for his regular stool at the end of the counter.
And a stranger is sitting there.
I'm behind the counter helping out while Dad's in the kitchen, but I forgot to reserve Emil's spot for him like we're supposed to. So Emil is completely unhinged and he waits in the aisle right behind this guy, staring over his shoulder, watching him just start on an omelet. He's totally rattled. His baby powder is probably caking up. And he's not even looking at all the empty stools at the counter.
He's been standing there holding my bowling record book for about 15 minutes when I start wondering how long he'll last. Half an hour? A week? I don't know. But this is an irresistible opportunity to find out. So when the stranger finally asks for his check and I see Emil perk up, I hand the guy a Daily News from behind the counter and pour him a fresh cup of coffee. "Free refills," I say--which is not Dad's policy--and he lights a cigarette and opens the paper and settles in for the day. Just like I planned.
I look over the stranger's shoulder at Emil, standing in the aisle behind him. Emil's mouth is open. His eyes are going pink around the rims and they're wide and they're staring at me. Like he doesn't understand why I just stabbed him in the heart. And I know that's exactly what I just did. And I can't look at him, so I make believe I'm busy wiping off the other end of counter.
When I finally look up, Emil is gone. His notebook is on the counter next to the stranger who stole his place.
He never came back to the luncheonette and I never helped him with his shoes again, and we never went bowling again.
There are healthy obsessions and unhealthy obsessions. Most people have a couple of each. I've always thought I have neither.
I'd love to be a Revolutionary War nut, or a car nut, or someone who still loses sleep over the Warren Commission, or even someone who is compelled to count every crack in the sidewalk. But I'm not. I'm just regular. Unlike Emil.
I knew him over 40 years ago. So, okay, maybe I do have one obsession. I mean sometimes I might lose a little sleep over Mr. Puh-push.