Why you should care

Because there’s a very low likelihood that you can really judge a book by its cover … well.

Beacon, New York? A beautiful place.

Small-town vibe, on the edge of the Hudson River. When Bruce Springsteen sings about towns like this, it sounds like he’s singing about this town — minus the desperation and death-trap stuff. Former factory workers and military men return here for the area’s other draw: work in one of the state’s few notable prisons. Most specifically, Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, almost an hour south of Beacon on the 890 Hudson line to Penn Station.

Which is where I found myself. On a train heading toward a weekend of rest and relaxation after a week of lifeguarding at a kids’ summer camp. I had a little under two hours back to New York City — time enough to read and look around. When the brush cleared I could see the river and the factories on a river I’d been swimming in.

He paused before saying almost gleefully, “I got out today.” “Out?” “Outta Sing Sing.”

About 50 minutes into the ride, the train stopped in Ossining, where I watched people get on and off the train. One in particular got on, catching my eye. He was hunched, and seemed old — probably just in his late 40s — to my untrained 16-year-old eye. He wore a gray suit and worked his way down the aisle. All of about 5′6″ of him. Nodding into each row, making small talk with anyone who seemed interested, only no one was interested. In 1978 New York, no one wanted to talk to strangers.

But I did. He dressed like the old men you used to see hanging out at Times Square’s tough Terminal Bar — racing form sticking out of their pockets, cigars in their mouths. (The drinking age was 18 back then, but no one asked for ID, and I drank, often hanging out at the Terminal.) Straight up Damon Runyon stuff. His hair was graying and swept across his forehead. It was August and hot, and by the time he had gotten to my row I was hoping he would ask.

“This seat taken?”

“Nah.” I slid over next to the window, and he pulled up next to me. He seemed relieved. He shifted his butcher-paper-wrapped bundle under his seat and his suitcase above in the overhead rack. Then he started talking. About everything. And anything. Mostly sports at first. The city. At 16 I hadn’t gotten into the habit of asking what people did for work, but I finally thought to ask if he lived “upstate” or was going home.

He paused before saying almost gleefully, “I got out today.”

“Out?”

“Outta Sing Sing.” And now I was gleeful. My lifelong obsession had cohered around a search for a certain kind of authenticity, and phonies of all kinds irked me. But this old Irish-American con? Well, he felt like the real deal. Whatever that was.

“Congratulations …”

“Billy Conn.”

I introduced myself. One of Conn’s eyes was filmed over, and with his eye that still worked he saw me looking. “Yeah. I got bad diabetes. Lost the eye to it. And that’s why I got the cane: diabetes.”

He talked diabetes, and beyond. Mostly about prison, where time is measured in boredom, where it was all about beyond. He talked about people I didn’t know like I knew them, using their prison names like some might have used the names of athletes, and by the time the train pulled into Penn Station, we were both shocked that we were in Penn Station.

Because, of course, this would be the time that it would be natural to have taken our leave of each other, but first we hesitated until finally I helped him with his suitcase from the overhead and we stood on the platform. Him trying to figure out what to do with all that freedom and me trying to figure out what the smart next move was.

“Hey. You want to get a drink?”

And then the question that was why I was here and why I’d have been surprised if he wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t asked earlier: “So, what were you in for?” “Oh. Murder.”

He thought that sounded great, and as we headed uptown there was no doubt in my mind where we were headed: the Southeast corner of 8th Avenue and 41st Street. The Terminal Bar.

Conn got a beer. A Budweiser. I ordered a Rolling Rock, because that’s what DeNiro drank in The Deer Hunter.

And then the question that was why I was here and why I’d have been surprised if he wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t asked earlier: “So, what were you in for?” I sort of hated asking. Seemed like a violation of, if not his privacy, then his right to reinvention. But it’s not like I was hanging with him so I couldn’t ask. He, also, didn’t have to answer.

“Oh. Murder.” And there it was: very much the real deal. I asked, he answered. So I asked again.

“What happened?”

“Ah. I used to live up in the Bronx. But, wait, before that I lived somewhere else.” The story spilled easily. He had been at home one day cleaning his rifle. Not sure why he had a rifle, but he had one and he was cleaning the one he had.

“When I turned to whistle at some woman on the street, I accidentally leaned on the trigger,” he said. The rifle discharged, shooting him in the head. Rushed to the hospital, he ended up with plates in his head. He healed, but the doctors ruled out contact sports. “The plates could shift. I mean, you never know.”

Flash forward to later. “I was shacked up with this … well, no nice way to put it, but she was a boozehound. Sweet as pie when she was sober, which wasn’t often.” Conn had been watching the game. A baseball game. She had on a baby-blue nightgown and while they had both started drinking together, she got drunker faster. She was not a baseball fan. An argument ensued. And then a thing that in the years since I’ve noticed many outlaws do: They collapse time.

“Well, next thing I know … she’s waving around an empty fifth of scotch and it’s getting closer to my head. You know, if the plates in my head shifted, I could have died. I don’t know what happened then, but I remember being surprised that my hands were covered with blood. Her blood.” He tore her nightgown, strangled her with it and threw her body out the window.

“What did you do then?”

“I went back to the game but … next thing I know … the cops are kicking in the door. Ho, boy. They really threw me a beating that day.”

We finished our beers.

He had plans to head over to his halfway house and call his parole officer. I had plans to get home. We had made plans to keep in touch. We never kept in touch.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.