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When Johnny Comes Marching In

The other night I was in a literary bar in the East Village, the kind of place where nervous poets, novelists and memoirists read their work to other nervous poets, novelists and memoirists, when in walked a tall, strapping soldier in full desert camouflage.


He said something to the bartender, downed a beer, hitched his huge Army backpack farther up his shoulder, sent a shy grin out to the room and left. Nobody looked at him; nobody grinned back — I glanced around to check. It was as if an unwelcome ghost had entered the room, a harbinger of bad news we didn’t want to acknowledge.


I know it’s the New York way not to stare. We don’t stare at anybody, celebrities, crazies or ghosts, let alone soldiers. But it bothered me that everybody pretended not to have noticed him, and it bothered me that neither I nor anyone else had said hi or welcome or how are you doing?


I felt a class and political chasm open right there in the bar as I sipped my white wine. Here we were, a room full of writers, students and other privileged Manhattan types. And there was he, a young soldier reminding us that we are indeed at war, but that it’s not being fought by the likes of us.

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This essay appeared in the the April 10, 2009, issue of the New York Times.

Additional essays by Helen Benedict can be found at featurewell.com When you reach the site, just type "Helen Benedict" in the Advanced Search window. All essays are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission.