Confessions of a Rat

by John Delach

When the system works against us we usually have little or no choice but to succumb to the inevitable and accept that life is less than we want it to be. But, I ask you, dear reader, “What if you were granted special circumstances that provided you with the opportunity to right a nagging wrong? Would you take it even if it meant ratting out some other person?”


Damn right you would.


For a little over ten years from 1989 to 2000, I regularly exercised almost every morning before going to work. My company offered free membership to Cardio Fitness Center, an upscale gym located in Rockefeller Center. The clientele included executives from Exxon, Rockefeller Center itself, Time-Life and The New York Times. Cardio Fitness made it simple and easy. They opened at 6:30 and supplied unisex tee shirts and shorts for every member making it the antithesis of a muscle gym.


We each had a locker and it didn’t take long after I joined that fall to realize just who some of my locker mates were. One December morning, I listened over my shoulder to the following conversation: “David, that was a lovely lighting ceremony last night.”


“Why thank you Punch, I do believe we were able to procure a nice tree this year.”


As I tied my sneaker, I stole a glance in the direction of the conversants, my eyes confirming that they were indeed Arthur (Punch) Sulzberger, publisher of the NY Times and David Rockefeller. Armed with this information, I chose to share my six degrees of separation story with others finishing with, “David Rockefeller and I are on a first-name basis: I call him, ‘Your Wealthiness’ and he calls me, ‘Hey you.”


A self-imposed, daily early morning trip to Cardio wasn’t easy since I lived in Port Washington, a slave to the LIRR and transportation within Manhattan to get from Penn Station at Thirty-Third and Eighth to the McGraw-Hill Building at Forty-Eighth and Sixth. This meant taking the 5:36 train out of Port Washington and finding fellow-travelers with whom to share a cab.


To make the 5:36 bedtime was never past 9 pm. I awoke at 4:47*, shaved, took a courtesy shower, dressed in clothes laid out the night before and left the house at 5:20 for the short ride to the station. At that time in the morning the only two dangers I faced were garbage trucks and newspaper delivery people both who owned the street and didn’t look for other traffic.


My car radio was set to 660 AM, WFAN, a sports talk show station then hosted by Steve Summers. Steve went off the air at 5:30 so I heard his last caller of the night who more times than not was a diminutive chap who Steve deemed, short Al. Steve would begin their conversation with, “Time is short and so is Al.”


Arriving at the station, my first priority was to secure the morning NY Times, the second, a cup of Joe before picking out one of the plentiful parking spaces.


On the train, same car, same seat every day; in the beginning I was one of the few “suits”  universally despised by construction workers and other non-suits. I didn’t blame them as most suits were financial types who spread themselves across several seats while shutting out the world behind the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.


The Paper of Record was what I craved, but many days it was dicey whether the Times would make it before I arrived. Sometimes the papers made it but the news vendor didn’t show before departure. That problem was easily solved, a pocket knife or a car key would cut the strap and a cardboard cup would hold the money owed. If the Times wasn’t there, Newsday would have to suffice as a poor substitute. Unfortunately, as time went by the Times failed to arrive with greater regularity. When I complained to the newsstand guy, he shook his head and said that the delivery man didn’t care.


It just so happened that the locker next to mine belonged to John Reilly, then the Times’ Metropolitan editor. One day, frustrated, I complained to Mr. Reilly about the tardiness of his newspaper reaching Port Washington. As if by magic, shortly thereafter, the paper never missed the train again. And this honeymoon continued, all was well and life was good. One day I mentioned to the newsstand proprietor how pleased I was with the delivery of the Times. His eyes lit up as he said, “Wow, I know. But that delivery guy is really ticked off. His boss came down on him like a ton of bricks. He said some big shot had dropped a dime on him and he was almost fired.”


The rat said nothing and just walked away with a smile on his face. As I think about it now, I may have been whistling Strike up the Band too.


*Why 4:47? My clock alarm was tuned to a news station, WCBS, that reported traffic and weather on the eights.