Ari and I walked into a bar with a powder-white altar.
Everything was white, the bartender was a god and there were layers of gossamer-thin tissue paper—a sea of ethereal, gentle moths—blowing in a warm beach breeze. It felt like some semblance of heaven. There was a ledge—a cliff below although I was too scared to look down—just before that dream-fog broke.
“God’s door should always be open,” howled a man with a greasy blondish ponytail tucked under a beanie, carrying a scuffed-up duffel bag—probably containing the weight of the world—over one shoulder. The church was closed and the gate was locked, even though it was nearly time for 5:00 Mass.
“Well that’s just a crying shame,” he mumbled as he walked on down Nostrand.
That night, outside a restaurant, Wayne was talking to no one really about how he’s been spending a lot of time recently moving things around in his apartment in the Bronx, you know, re-decorating. He was happy to have a couple nights home alone again, plus, his place needed a little love, he said.
“Those goddamn trains though, man…don’t get me STARTED on that goddamn 2/5 train…” he shook his head and winced a little as he inhaled some of that sharp February air along with his tobacco.
“Oooooh-EEEEEE my head on those damn trains.”
“Been workin’ in these damn kitchens ‘round here damn near 15 years now,” he laughed wildly, tossing it all back. Then, quietly, reminiscing, “wouldn’t even believe what this place looked like then.”
He danced a couple of steps down Franklin Avenue—cutting loose like Fred Astaire in checkered pants and a grease-stained white coat—kicking the dirty snow banks along the sidewalk edges as he went.
“None of these bowties and nice-ass strollers and happy hours and shit 15 years ago brother. But lemme tell you… could be a lot worse, you know? Gotta count those blessings but gotta keep those cards close to your chest now too brother, all at the same time…gotta just take care of you and yours ‘cause you just never know.”
Later, Francesca came in with the cold breeze, kicking her heels and winking like a 1920’s jazz singer. She brought a spliff, so the night sky immediately opened up. We smoked outside and Chef came out from the kitchen, perched on the bench—a fat parrot on a thin branch—with his lime green bandana. He joined us for one of his dirty Marlboro reds.
“For thirty years—me—I smoke the red ones. Fucking lung cancer though, man.”
Chef has been driving illegally in the United States for 14 years now without a license, but somehow the only two tickets he’s ever received were for riding his bike on the sidewalk—outside his son’s school—from a white NYPD officer.
“The guy asked for my license. Me—I don’t have one. I told him I had my passport, showed him that. The guy—he looked at it, threw it on the ground and spit on it. Me—I took out my phone to take a video, and he finally fucked off. Fucking cops here.”
Chef talked to Francesca in broken Spanish-Italian, and I looked up at the sky and had to laugh. This is the same New York sky we’re all still living under, night by night, and the night is always on my mind. When your workday starts at 5pm, that neon disease starts creeping into your animal soul; bleeding into your routine; becoming your night grind.
No customers yet; chopping it up in the back in the kitchen, where it’s always ten degrees warmer than the rest of the restaurant. I pull out a dish crate and take a drag of Chef’s cigarette, commenting on how completely nasty, rubbery and…after a pause…I decide on “membrane-y” as the best adjective… calamari looks before it goes into the deep fryer to receive its more palatable golden outer crust bath.
Out in front again: “Fuck it man. I’m just trying to get treated right tonight, you know,” uttered by a giant-ass man, taking off his scarf, which—from my vantage point—looked like a garden snake wrapped around a hippopotamus, plopping down at the bar next to his friend. A handshake, a settling down into bar stools, then me greeting them—sweet as a slice of pecan pie on a balmy Bardstown afternoon—two menus, two glasses and a bottle of water.
Henrietta was in my head, and the change of the seasons was as ripe, acidic and shining as a fresh-cut grapefruit in the air. Plus: when there’s a bar dividing you from them, it’s fine to stare like an animal. Also: we went from grapefruits to pine trees in what seemed like a second, didn’t we now? And now it’s been winter forever. Miserably cold; filthy snow banks; weather reports with record-breaking lows and soul-crushing wind chills; “due to signal malfunctions, there are delays on the 4, 5 and 6 lines between Brooklyn Bridge City Hall and Grand Central – 42nd Street; all local stops on express trains; leaving your scarf at the bar; everyone with a deep, hacking cough. Everyone agrees when you present ridiculous blanket weather statements, at least, since everyone deals with, well, you know, the weather.
Then, back to other interior spaces: after they settled in. He looked at me from across the bar and said, very specifically: he remembered my knees from this past summer, the way I smelled and the flowers I picked out. We also liked a lot of the same music, as it turned out.
“Yes, back in time, Esther used to be the kind of girl that you would never leave. She’d do anything to give me what I need for my disease.”
On the news behind the bar I see: twelve Wesleyan students hospitalized because of a Molly overdose. Maybe they just wanted to know how the garden grows.