The End Of The Line Jack was always there at the top of the morning. And then, suddenly, he wasn't.
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Summer is so over. You know it by the small tang in the air when you step onto the driveway. The leaves haven't quite made their first turn yet, but a few early retirees are now to be found resting on the green of the lawn, which they no doubt find slightly less soft and comfortable than it looked from above. The crowds in the public spaces aren't quite as plump and languid as they were in weeks past--the gaggles of secretaries and messengers munching on bag lunches depleted and just a few hardy smokers huddled against the edge of the wind.

So fall, at last, is here, and with it the feeling that we are all back to school. Not that, for people like us, summer is really any kind of vacation. We march briskly from June until Labor Day on a campaign for productivity and self-preservation. For me, summer days are distinguished solely by the knowledge that I am forced to wrench myself away for a few weeks, if I can, with all the paranoia and anxiety that entails.

This year, between a three-week road-warrior crusade and ten days recreating next to my fax and phone, I was away from my commuter rail station for the entire month of August. When at last the time came for us to return to our normal ways, thank God, I did so believing everything would engulf me just as it had before.

It did not. Jack Quinn was gone. Jack sold us our train tickets to the city. And in retrospect, I guess he was something more than that.

Many things change in this world. Reporting structures. Marriages. The things people talk about as they waste time over coffee. Even the buildings that surround us. But there also should be some constants in this world, shouldn't there? A few people, places, and routines that continue, solid and immutable, as the rest of the cosmos swirls about them? We like to think so. We don't like to remember there aren't.

So the time came when I went to buy my monthly ticket in the last days before the autumnal equinox, and I found that Jack was not there. I remembered, suddenly, that in the latter days of July I had also noticed that his office was filled by someone else, but I had thought nothing of it. On vacation, I thought. But I missed him a little, even then. Not a big missing, no. But something, certainly. Maybe it was because, right at the start of the day, here was one minuscule island of 19th-century gentility. I'm exaggerating, surely.

Imagine yourself, weighed down with your personal burden in advance of the coming day, trudging up the platform to the little window. "Monthly," you say into the face of the person on the other side. A big face. The face, perhaps, of a kindly bassett hound. A little mournful but not sad. Very kind eyes. What were those eyes doing? Looking at you. Seeing you. Recognizing you? Was that possible? Unlikely, to be sure. And yet...

"Good morning!" Jack would say, but it was not one of those plastic, semi-hostile, don't-frost-my-mellow contemporary good mornings you get from the guys in the newspaper stands. It was just Jack wishing you a good morning. And he knew who you were.

Big deal, right? How many executives do you deal with who need to be reminded who you are?

At any rate, you would buy your ticket from Jack and that would be it, unless he had a little something to say about sports or the weather, which didn't take long. I wish I could tell you there was more to it. But that was it. And I was satisfied.

Between trains you could see Jack outside his office, sauntering around the upper platform, smoking, talking with the little dude who sold the newspapers, hobnobbing with the occasional cop. He wasn't jolly or loud. He didn't grab anybody by the elbow to tell him a joke. He was just Jack, and he was happy in his job, which, truth be told, was nothing much, right?

What's your job? Is it something very important? Saving the world, are we?

What can I tell you? For 20 seconds, once or twice a month, I started the day by very superficially communicating with someone who was, I think, happy on the planet, who had a gift for friendship. He was one more nice person in the world. We have enough of those, don't we?

So, as I said, I got to the platform in the week after Labor Day, and Jack was not there. He was not on vacation. He was not sick at home. He was gone, that's all. And I suddenly felt a gigantic hole in my heart. For him. For all of us.

"What's this?" I said to a guy standing next to me at the place where you can buy a buttered roll or a muffin.

"Yeah," the guy said to me, and I could see the hurt he felt as clearly as if it had been a big red sign in the middle of his chest. "Jack died."

"Died?" I said, quite stupidly.

"Yeah," my traveling companion said. And then we just looked at each other.

In the small office where he used to stand and sell us our proofs of servitude, there was a young man counting money and pushing paper. In the glass-enclosed case that houses announcements and schedules, there was a photograph of Jack shaking hands with somebody. He was off to one side, as if even in this picture Jack was the secondary subject. He didn't look unhappy, though. A page of black-bordered type was posted next to the picture.

The obit, for that is what it was, and a very fine one, too, began with a poem, one of those old-fashioned rhyming ones, essentially saying that while other men might have done great deeds, this one had made a success of the most important thing of all--life itself. In the simple, unemotional prose of someone whose grief is profound beyond the need for show, the paper went on to sketch a little picture of Jack. He liked, above all other things, peace and quiet, probably accompanied by a Bud and a cigarette. He loved music, particularly Elvis. He served all who knew him--his family, his company, his country. He had made a difference in Vietnam. He had made a difference to commuters every day. He was a good son, friend, uncle. He was 55 when he went, gone to a place, the author was quite sure, where all trains run on time.

"I'll get a monthly," I said to the man behind the glass. He did what I asked, which was all he was required to do. But he didn't know me. He didn't say hello. He didn't offer a word about the Jets or the Giants, both of whom look pretty good this year.

It didn't matter, I guess. I went to work anyway.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at