July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
All this happened thirty and more years ago, in the late 1950s. I was a reporter on a New York paper working on what was called the lobster shift. That meant we came in at one in the morning and left at eight. Somewhere there is somebody who knows why the lobster shift was called the lobster shift, but I have never met that somebody.
One morning, around five, the night managing editor told me Harry Truman was spending the night at the Hotel Carlyle on Madison Avenue. “He always takes a morning walk around six. Go up. Maybe he’ll say something.”
“Okay.” Truman had been out of office for years. His historical ranking was very low—China lost, inconclusive Korean War, inflation, corruption, Reds in the State Department. I did not agree with the general view. I had always admired him.
In the hotel lobby I saw an Associated Press reporter known to the world as Joe Schroeder. That was not his name. Hearing me fumble around in German with somebody once, he had informed me that his real name was Josef Schenkendorff or something, but that no one could pronounce it, not even his wife, and so over the years he had become known as Joe Schroeder even though he still officially kept his name. Some years ago I saw his obituary in The New York Times . He died as he lived—Joe Schroeder.
We chatted. The elevator door opened. Former President Harry S. Truman emerged. He was beaming. We went up to him. He greeted Schroeder by name; Schroeder had covered many of these early-morning walks. He beamed at me. He was wearing a double-breasted dark blue suit. He had a cane. His thick glasses made his eyes seem enormous. I had never seen eyes made to look so gigantic. His teeth appeared to clack around in his mouth when he spoke. I had read about this happening in novels about real rubes but had never actually seen it.
We went out into the street and over to Park Avenue. It was getting light. There was a silent drizzle. There was little traffic, mostly off-duty cabs. Not infrequently one would slow down and a voice would yell, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” Truman always waved at the driver. We came to a red light. A born New Yorker, I started to cross. Truman’s cane shot out and rapped me on the shins. I stopped. Walking behind, Schroeder bumped into me.
“We’re gonna wait till the light turns green,” Truman said. “I don’t care if you boys get wet as hens. When I go, you go. You trail after me like dogs after a bitch in heat.”
I had been born during the Hoover administration, and the only Presidents of my conscious lifetime were Roosevelt, the man at my side, and the current holder of the position, Elsenhower. Would such phraseology characterize the Hyde Park aristocrat? Unlikely. Regarding Elsenhower, as a recent Army veteran I was quite acquainted with the language he must have encountered and perhaps used during his many years as an officer, but I had always associated him with the words he spoke on D-day. I had heard them on the wonderful Edward R. Murrow records of the sounds of the 1930s and 1940s: “People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning…I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us now.” He certainly hadn’t said anything then about bitches in heat.
We strolled along. I cannot remember what we said, but the tone of our chatting was such as to drive out of my mind any ideas about offering praise for the Marshall Plan or the decision to intervene in Korea or anything of the sort. We walked for about twenty or twenty-five minutes and headed back to the Carlyle. Now, the aforementioned Eisenhower in his At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends says one should always take with a grain of salt conversations detailed many years after they occurred. But one thing I said to Truman, and what he replied, are as clear in my memory as if said five minutes ago.
“Mr. President,” I said. I had noted that Schroeder so addressed him. “You’re here alone in the street with two reporters, neither armed. There are a lot of”—and instead of saying “psychopaths” or “psychos,” I said “nuts,” for the other words seemed somehow too highfalutin for this plainspoken fellow—great President, as I believed, or not—”a lot of nuts in New York. Isn’t there some cause for concern?”
The immense eyes looked into mine. The teeth clacked. “When I was President of the Yew-nited States,” he said, and that is precisely how he pronounced it, “I told the Secret Service: ‘Any son of a bitch tries to shoot me, I’ll take the gun away from him, stick it up his ass, and pull the trigger.’” He beamed at me.
We came to the hotel. Mrs. Truman was in the lobby with what seemed like a lot of luggage. A Chrysler sedan was at the curb, brought there, I suppose, from a nearby garage. Schroeder vanished to call his office. A bellhop brought out the luggage in a cart, and the doorman started loading it into the car’s trunk. Then people came out of the hotel and cabs came and the doorman had to take care of the departing guests. Truman replaced him at loading the Chrysler. Wherever he put something, Mrs. Truman told him to put it someplace else. I looked on. But it seemed wrong that a much older man, and a great historical figure, should perform physical labor while I stood by with my hands in my pockets. So I replaced Truman.
Every time I thought I had the trunk loaded, Mrs. Truman had me take something out and move something else into its place. Valises came and went from the sidewalk, in, then out, then in lengthwise, then sideways, then out again. Truman beamed. It seemed to go on forever. Finally I had it done. I closed the trunk door. I opened the passenger door for the former First Lady.
The three of us were on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. Each extended a hand. “Mr. President. Mrs. Truman.”
She seated herself, and I closed the door. He gestured that he did not wish me to go around and get his door. “Now, I want you to take care of yourself,” he said. He spoke in the most kindly of tones, sweetly, really.
He went around the car, opened the door, got behind the wheel. From somewhere she produced a map. He pulled away from the curb. She was talking to him, and I was certain that along with discussions about their route gotten from her map—I don’t recall where they were headed—she was adding Slow Down, Watch the Light, Careful of That Car.
I went into the hotel, called the night city editor, and reported there was absolutely nothing said or done that would constitute a story. The night editor told me to go home.