News Stand on the Train

News Stand on the Train

By Roger Heid

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Back in 1952, a German tabloid called ‘Bild Zeitung’(-> Picture Newspaper) started to rapidly gain popularity, accompanied by controversy, usually stirred up by certain celebrities and politicians who felt they were either ridiculed, unduly criticized or otherwise morally violated. In a sense, this tabloid compares to the ‘National Enquirer’, but it was quite a bit more caustic, to say the least.

Nevertheless, perhaps because of this, it became very popular. Certain articles often became the centerpiece of beer table disputes and across the fence gossip. Naturally, sales skyrocketed. It was very expensive to put an ad in it. On certain days, the vendors ran out by noon. It was the most loved and the most hated daily paper, depending on who the reader was and which side of the social stratification the reader represented.

The event described below started out in fall of 1959. It is something I will never forget. After you are done reading, you will, most likely, understand what I mean, maybe not.

Anyway, there was this small in stature old looking man. He needed a cane to walk; his back was stooped over and somewhat misshapen. His mostly gray hair resembled Benjamin Franklin’s hairdo, but he still looked well groomed. He always wore the same tan canvas jacket and dark brown pants. The top of his head was usually embellished by some kind of baseball cap with the words ‘Bild  Zeitung’ embroidered on it. A large pouch-like bag, stuffed with a fat wad of copies of this tabloid, would dangle from his shoulder, almost touching the ground.

At first glance, he was a rather pathetic sight to see, but if you watched him for a spell, you could feel a sense of pride, determination and strength emanating from his wrinkled face. He walked with a pronounced limp, seemingly having a hard time. Some called him ‘Old Gimpy’; some simply called him Egon. Nobody seemed to know where he came from, where he lived or who he was, for that matter.

He had become a daily sight near and around the train station, limping around, selling the paper to the population at large. About every ten steps or so, his clear tenor voice monotonously announced: “Zehn Pfennig Bild Zeitung”. He was profoundly different from the norm; his sheer existence was embraced by an aura of mystery. The fact that he never reflected any kind of emotion added to the enigma.

He never said anything else; leading one to think he may be hard of hearing. He also never looked in anyone’s face. He would just stare on the ground, except when he handed out a paper and collected a coin or two. His line of vision would then briefly focus on the customer’s hands.

In short, he was strange, odd, unusual, and weird or whatever attribute one would choose to affix to him. But everybody got used to him. He was seemingly quite harmless, no threat to anyone. All he ever did was selling his papers.

Then one day, he suddenly made an appearance inside the station gates, selling papers to the folks gathered on the platforms, waiting for their trains to arrive. Some kind hearted railroad employee must have let him pass through the gate without a ticket. This became a daily routine.

About two or three weeks into his new routine, he suddenly climbed into a passenger car of a train waiting for the departure signal. There he sold even more papers, namely to all those who did not get off the train. From sheer observation of the train activity, he apparently had it all figured out. He would never fail to get off the train just moments before departure time.

On a certain day, however, something must have occurred in Germany that caused some major public upheaval. I cannot recall what had caused all this general uproar. During those days, I cared very little about politics or celebrity scandals; the latter I still don’t care about. At any rate, on that day, this tabloid sold like the proverbial hotcakes. Old Gimpy could not hand them out fast enough. Wouldn’t you know, this time he failed to get off the train in time.

Just moments after the train had started to move, Old Gimpy, standing close to me, by chance, looked up and stared out the nearest window. I had no clue as to how he would react. Well, he did not react at all. He just kept limping along, announcing the product he had for sale.

Deep in my heart, I started to become concerned about this old man; so I took it upon myself to follow him around. By the time we reached the next station, he had sold more than half of the papers. I expected him to now get off the train. I thought he would then maybe buy a ticket and wait for another train to take him back. I was wrong. He did not get off. This puzzled me to no end.

Two stations later, his bag was finally empty, and he got off the train. In the meantime, curiosity and concern had gotten the best of me; hence, I followed him off the train. It so happened, that on that station, an oncoming train was already waiting to depart. He picked up his pace and climbed into the nearest car. I followed him on his heels.

He chose an empty seat, opened up his pouch and procured some book the title of which I could not make out. I wound up sitting close to him. He briefly looked me square in the eyes, a pensive expression dominating his face; but he ignored me and resumed reading in his book.

Once back at the original station, we both got off. I tried to keep some distance from him, but he suddenly stopped, turned around, looked at me and said:

“Young man, why are you following me? What concern of yours is it about what I am doing and where I am going?”

His voice was firm, his language quite clear and concise. He did not sound feeble, at all. In fact, if you would only listen to him, not seeing him, you would expect a young strong man addressing you. Somehow, this did not surprise me.

“Well, Sir, I became concerned about your wellbeing. You appear to be somewhat infirm. I just wanted to make sure that you are all right. That’s all.”

“This is very kind of you, really, but you need not be concerned about me. I can handle myself quite well, in spite of what it may look like to you. You must not make any fuss over me, you hear? Now follow me.”

Across the plaza, there was this book store; he led me right into it. After a brief transaction, his pouch was full again. Now he made me follow him to the café next door. Once seated, he ordered and paid for both of us.

“Young man, I can tell you are bursting out of your seams trying to find out more about me. Well, I will not tell you my life story. Some of it you would not understand nor believe, anyway. Some of it, you would not even want to hear. You see, I am actually not as old as I look. I am only 38 years old. As far as my limp is concerned, well, let us say I was born that way, but it got a lot worse after I was wounded during an air raid. I was on a train when that happened. On that day, I lost everything worth living for. I loved her very much. The rest I do not wish to speak about, except that I was hospitalized for years. It took the doctors and surgeons a long time to patch me back together, the best they could. This is all I will tell you. Please, don’t spread it around. I don’t want anyone to pester me. I don’t need any pity or alms, you hear? And, thank you for your concern. I really appreciate this, but don’t follow me around anymore, please.”

He reached into his bag and handed me a piece of paper. It was a 2-year rail pass which allowed him unlimited use of the railroad system. In the process of reaching for it, a portion of his forearm became exposed. There I noticed a tattoo consisting of several numerals and some letters.

“I bought this pass a few weeks ago. Sometimes it gets too cold outside, and I got tired of just covering the same old area.”

He was buried about six weeks later. He had fallen dead on a passenger car while selling papers. I was amazed how many people attended the funeral. What was even more amazing was the amount of money he left behind. In his will, he endowed it all to an animal shelter located about 50 miles from town.

Some stories do not need pictures, only imagination. I sort of knew what the train he rode on was headed for, or what it came from. I do know he died from a broken heart. I don’t know just what had kept him alive for that long.

 

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