Alvin York was a man that knew what he liked and what he liked was roasted potatoes.
—-Bill Chance, Tubers
by Bill Chance
Alvin York was a man that knew what he liked and what he liked was roasted potatoes. He had meticulously arranged his schedule so that he had a half-hour between the time the bus arrived at the station and the time the train left for his office in the city. He would buy a cardboard container of tiny round roasted taters from a squat man in a beret that had a cart next to the newsstand. He would also pick up that day’s newspaper from the stand and then read the editorial and sports pages while he ate his potatoes.
They were small and immature, the kind his mother had always referred to as new. Each one was bite-sized, tender, and sweet – a perfect morning snack. They were warm, but not so hot that you couldn’t pick them up with your fingers and eat them with ease.
The container was a sort of flat-bottomed cone, an ingenious folded design that the man in the beret would slide from a stack on top of his cart, open the lid, and then silently scoop out a serving of steaming spuds. Alvin even had a favorite table and chair, near the newsstand and facing the train platform, with the big art Deco clock in view also, so he could relax without fear of missing his ride. Some mornings, somebody else would be sitting at his table and that would put a frown on Alvin’s face, a frown slightly deeper than usual, as he was forced to search around for a different, inferior, perch.
Today, the station was very busy and crowded. Alvin worried about finding a proper spot. But as he stood outside the newsstand, next to the cart and the man with a beret, with his briefcase in one hand, his brand new newspaper under his arm, and his container of potatoes in the other, he saw a stranger rise from his favorite table and stride toward the platform.
“My lucky day,” Alvin said to himself as he moved in quickly, before anyone else could snag his seat.
The table was already covered in newspapers; obviously the previous sitter was an irresponsible litterer. Alvin sighed as he placed his food container on the table and arranged the bulky folded pages of newsprint in some sort of order, extracting his favorite sections in the battle.
When he finally brought the sports section below his eye level, Alvin jumped a bit when he saw that another man was occupying the chair opposite him… at his own table. He was bothered by the nerve of this person, obviously no more than another working commuter like himself, in his damp trench coat and briefcase, and his audacity at taking the chair without asking. There was no understanding the coarse effrontery of the population in these new days. Taking a seat without asking permission was a coarse and crude action of great brass, no matter how crowded the station or how occupied Alvin was arranging his paper.
Looking at the man, Alvin saw his container of roasted potatoes in the center of the table and that helped him feel a little better. He eagerly reached out and snatched a savory sphere off the top of the pile and popped it into his mouth.
He was surprised to see the man opposite not ignoring him as he ate and read, but staring at him with narrowed eyes – it was as if he took the potato eating as a personal affront. The man seemed suddenly silently angry. The man continued to stare at Alvin as he slowly reached out himself and ate one of the potatoes.
Alvin felt a strong sudden wave of heat course across his face. He was shocked, what kind of man steals another’s food? Alvin was not a greedy man, he considered himself benevolent and unselfish – but this was beyond the pale. Someone’s property is sacred, especially his food, especially his food during his morning commute. He did not know what to do. Looking at the other man’s eyes, he saw raw emotion but couldn’t really understand… was the man angry? But why should he be angry at Alvin? It was he who was the thief.
Should he say something? But what? His mind a buzzing hive Alvin decided against speaking up, he didn’t want to start a scene and had no idea how the stranger would react to such a provocation. There was really only one possible course of action.
Alvin ate another potato.
He stared at the man, wondering what he would do next. His eyes narrowed even further, his mouth set in a tense rictus, the skin on his face tight. Alvin gasped as the man reached out again for a potato and then seemed to have to use a great deal of willpower to relax his set jaw enough to get the food in past his teeth.
This continued, each man staring at the other, silent anger increasing, as they worked their way back and forth through the entire order of potatoes.
Finally, the man snatched the last one out, and with a wordless but audible irate grunt yanked the empty cardboard up and crumpled it in his fist. He stood quickly, spun on his heels, and marched stiffly to the nearest exit, disappearing into the street. He threw the crumpled container in a trash can as he left.
“Well I never!” Alvin finally shouted the moment he was sure the man was out of earshot. “The nerve! What is this world coming to?”
Looking up at the clock he saw it was only a few minutes until his train left. Still upset, he stood on shaking legs as he gathered the pile of newspapers together off the top of the table, arranging them so he could dump them in the recycle bin on the way to the train.
“Never was able to read my paper,” he whined out loud to nobody in particular, “My morning break ruined!”
Then, as he picked up the last section of newspaper, he looked down at the now bare table to see his container of potatoes, still resting where he had left it before sifting through the double set of newspapers. He had lost track. He must have covered them with the unused pile of newspaper. The container of potatoes that he had been eating had belonged to the other man.
Later that afternoon, as he was preparing for the trip home, he called his wife.
“I was going to heat up some chicken,” she said.
“Dear, I was thinking, why don’t we go out to that new Italian place down the block? I know you’ve wanted to try it out.”
“On a Wednesday?” his wife asked. She sounded incredulous.
“What the hell,” he said. “Let’s live a little.”
His wife was even more surprised when Alvin ordered a bottle of wine to go with the meal. They each had a glass and, over their salads Alvin spoke.
“I have a story to tell you, dear. It’s a good one.”
And he told her about the stranger and the potatoes. He had been thinking about it all day and looking forward to getting it off of his chest. He laughed at the end, and his wife let out a little chuckle, but then she suddenly looked thoughtful.
“What’s the matter?” Alvin asked.
“Well, I was thinking?”
“Right now, in another part of town somewhere, I’ll bet that man is telling the same story to his wife -the story about a stranger eating his potatoes.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“But it will be a different… he doesn’t know. He thinks you were stealing his potatoes. His story isn’t funny; I imagine he was terrified.”
“Yes, I guess he was.”