Reprint from Nov. 2008
Soho, 1974 BC, Before Coach…(Prada and Gucci.) Old cast iron buildings, half sweatshops, half artists’ lofts. $500 a month gets you 5000 feet of raw space.
Spring Street Bar, the hippest place in the city, just ask us. On a good night you can see Johns and Cage, Raushenberg and Cunningham. Richie Serra comes in to punch people out, Andy Warhol shows up with his entourage after a Castelli opening. John and Yoko nurse beers. There has even been a “Clyde” Frazier citing.
But on Thanksgiving everyone dutifully turns into good little bourgeois and eats turkey en famille. Restaurants offer special menus, but only tourists and those with parents in elder care show up.
It’s the slowest and most hazardous day in the bar business. There’s no money to be made and you risk mutilation at the hands of some resentful reject who is drawn in by the lights. There had been a bit of a rush around noon as the locals fortified themselves for dreaded dinners. But now at 3:30 it’s dead. I’m using a lemon to show Mei, the Chinese busboy, how to throw a knuckleball when a guy in a green car coat slides in at the end of the bar.
He answers before I can ask. “Any kinda beer.”
People who don’t care what they drink just want to get loaded fast and act out their drama. This guy is white and blotchy with a sloppy red comb- over that starts under his ear and hardly covers his freckled bald spot. He’s got a blunt chin and a fighter’s caved-in nose. His watery blue eyes seem focused somewhere else even when they’re looking right at you. He’s the kind of holiday wacko who sets the alarms off , but for some reason I’m not concerned. He raises his glass. “Cheers, fellow outcast…”
I never speak to customers, even regulars. “No confessions please,” is the standard line. But the holiday has loosened my defenses. I pour myself a Remy.
He chainsmokes and stares into his beer while I chug Brandy Alexanders at the service end. When I go to empty his ashtray he puts down a fifty.
“Is there a magic cocktail that’ll put me in a festive mood?”
“Nothing that works on a holiday,” I say. “Holidays are God’s way of telling us we’re having too much fun.”
It’s a half-smart gloss on the cliche mantra of the decade: “Cocaine is God’s way of telling us we have too much money.” But he looks up at me like it’s the Sermon on the Mount.
“That’s really true, man,” he says. “Christmas is a total ordeal, too. Nobody ever gets what they want…”
“Because what they want can’t be bought in department stores,” I say. “Like the song says: All I want for Christmas/Is my two front teeth. But they’re lost forever like your youth and your innocence…”
He slaps the bar “That’s so profoundly true, Man. Christmas in a nutshell. But look at New Year’s. It starts out so great, but ends in disappointment.”
He wants a guru. Not usually my thing, but for some reason I rise to the bait. “That’s because people aspire to an ecstasy that is only available to the insane.”
“Then let’s get crazy,” he says. “Let’s have a double Bacardi 151.”
It’s the strongest booze in the house, 75% alcohol. I never touch it, but now I’m filling two rocks glasses. My new best friend throws down his drink with a practiced flip and waits for me. I follow suit. The rum burns a flaming trail of lava from my throat to my rectum.
“There’s three houses I”m not welcome in,” my pal says. “My parents, my ex wife and my girlfriend who just threw me out because I’m always stoned. How about you?”
Sirens wail in the distance. Everything here is totally under control.
“I’m past unwelcome,” I say. “I’m not even an afterthought. I’m only here today because they need somebody to turn off the lights.”
He gets up quickly, knocking over his stool. Through the mist I think I see him smiling.
“Man, you’re in worse shape than me,” he says. He pushes a hundred at me. “Thanks, you really cheered me up.”
“Any time,” I think I say.
I watch him go out and turn the corner. A hundred and fifty bucks is more than I make on a good night. “Nice guy,” I say to someone.
There’s a plate at the end of the bar. Turkey breast and glazed ham with pineapple…Brussel sprouts… Sweet potatoes with marshmallows…
“Thanks, maybe later,” I say.
Mei is at the bar, tugging my arm. “Come outside…”
A cold gust brings the smell of burning rubber. My friend is shivering in a storefront across the street with Jimmy the Irish cook. He offers me a thin, tightly rolled joint.
“Here, man, Happy Thanksgiving.”
I’m not a big reefer man, but I take a toke to be sociable. It’s harsh and unfamiliar, but I’m not a big reefer man so I take another when it comes around.
There’s a lot of hugging and hand clasping.
“You guys got me through,”my friend says. “I love you guys.”
Back in the bar, Mei’s face is very big.
“He your brother?” he asks. “He looks like you.”
“You think all white people look alike,” I say. “You guys…one billion twin brothers.”
“And you, two hundred fifty million,” he says. “So we going to crush you…”
And that’s the funniest thing we’ve both ever heard…
How did I get into Van Gogh’s yellow room? It feels so good to wash my face with soapy dish suds.
I realize I’ve turned myself inside out and got stuck into my brain.
“I have to get out of my head,” I say.
I ride my tricycle down the long, dark foyer. Can’t ride your bike in the house, grandma says.
In the bedroom I open the closet door. My mother is hiding behind the dresses, holding a handkerchief to her mouth, tears pouring out of her eyes.
The radio says it’ll go below zero today. I’m waiting for the 41 Flatbush Avenue bus. There’s nobody at the stop, which means I just missed it. The wind goes through my black leather jacket. My feet are so cold they’re burning.
“Hey, you okay?”
“I’m waiting for the pus,” I say. “That’s funny, huh ’cause that’s what I really am waiting for.”
My feet are sliding along the cold ground. In the sudden warmth of a car, the rum burns a lava trail from my rectum back to my throat…
My head is in the cold air. Yellow vomit runs down the side of the car.
“We found you in the schoolyard in Thompson Street.”
It’s the owner. They had called him when I bolted out of the bar, screaming “I have to get out of my brain!” I had walked across the street to the schoolyard and had been there for hours.
“That guy slipped you a joint laced with PCP,” he says.” Mei freaked out. They had to give him Thorazine in Bellevue. Jimmy ran his car into a lamppost, but he’s okay.”
Mei was too humiliated to return to work. But I heard he had stopped losing all his money at fan tan games in Chinatown and bought into a takeout in Jackson Heights. Jimmy joined AA and went back to Dublin.
I ended up with pleurisy and had to wear a belt around my chest for two weeks. In the doctor’s mirror I saw the booze flush starting to spread through my cheeks.
“I can’t live this way anymore,” I said to someone.
When I was better I made the rounds looking for the guy. I had bloody fantasies of beating him with a bar stool. Never found him. For years his face was fresh in my memory. I knew that if I ever saw him again I would easily summon that vengeful rage that still festered.
But then, his face began to fade. The rage subsided.
Now I think he might have been sent to make sure Mei stopped gambling. Jimmy took the pledge and I never spent Thanksgiving alone again.