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AutoBARography 6: A CHRISTMAS PAST

New York City, Christmas Eve, 1973…Global warming hadn’t become an A-list cause. Ozone layer sounded like something you inhaled at a party.

In Washington, the hottest present was a bootleg White House tape of President Nixon drunkenly ranting about the Watergate investigation to Attorney General John Mitchell. It was played at office parties all over town.

On Dec. 16, with the help of an Eagle Scout and a Brownie, Nixon, planted a 45 foot Colorado spruce, which was to be the first live White House Christmas tree. A few days earlier the North Vietnamese had rebuffed Kissinger’s peace plan. That day the Arab oil producers had announced they were lifting their oil embargo against every country but the US and Netherlands, who they said were being punished for giving aid to the Israelis during the recent October War with Egypt. As he delivered his greetings to the nation, promising to “maintain the integrity of the White House,” Nixon knew that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were running an espionage operation against the White House. Not only were the Democrats crying out for his impeachment, but his own military commanders were spying on him.

It had been a cruel month. On December 17, ice storms had delayed the opening of the Stock Exchange. Christmas Eve, a blizzard was dumping 30 inches of snow on Buffalo. In the city , a dark cloud settled like a wet blanket over the stars. Fluttering shreds of wrapping paper clung to my legs as I walked to the subway. Twin brothers in Santa hats marched outside the 72nd. St. station carrying signs reading “USEFUL IDIOTS FOR THE CIA.”

The energy shortage had curtailed the decorations on the tree in Rockefeller center. Fifth Avenue wasn’t its usual glittering self. The faltering economy, the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal had dampened the Christmas spirit.

Downtown, in Soho, the only way you could tell it was Christmas was that the galleries were closed and the sweatshops had sent their Hispanic ladies home early. The artists emerged from their lofts, hunched in fatigue jackets, with an occasional scarf as a gesture to the cold. Everything was closed. Only one light burned like a beacon in the night–Spring Street Bar.

We had no tree, no lights, no Christmas dinner. And we only had one customer: Kobe, the son of an Admiral in the Japanese Navy. Rumor was that he had been sent packing after he stabbed some guy with his father’s ceremonial sword. Earlier in the evening Mei, the Chinese busboy, had knocked over his drink It seemed like an accident, but then I saw Loq, the Chinese dishwasher giggling in the kitchen doorway. Kobe saw him, too. Now he was downing tequilas and glaring at Mei, visions of the Rape of Nanking dancing in his head.

Marisol was a famous Venezuelan artist, who was having an affair with Jack, my bar partner. She was known for her explosive temper. “Get ready for some shit, I stood her up today,” he had muttered as she lurched in, having fortified herself elsewhere for an epic confrontation.

I watched warily as he poured her a red wine, which she knocked back like a shot of whiskey, while glaring at him. Then thrust her empty glass at him for another…And another…

A couple came in out of the flurries. She was tall, graceful, wet snow glittering on her dark hair and cashmere coat, the kind of beauty who never buttoned her coat, even in bitter cold. He was shorter than she and softly fat. Biology hadn’t given him a break. His face was red and chapped by the cold, just as it would be red and blistered by the sun. He steered her to the bar and glared as I smiled at her. There was a lot of glaring going on tonight.

“What would you like?” he asked her with what sounded like a parody upper class drawl.

“I don’t know…anything.” Her indecision gave me an excuse to look at her. Dark eyes under thick, unplucked brows, were focused somewhere else.

“What was that crazy drink you loved in Venice?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t remember.”

Pousse cafe,” he said.. He threw down the challenge. “Can you make that here?”

I had never made one in my life. “I can make it anywhere,” I said, defiantly.

I rummaged in the office behind the bar and found a torn copy of Mr. Boston’s Bar Book. Pousse cafe had six ingredients floated on top of one another to produce what the author called “a striped rainbow of color.”

The liquors had to be floated in the right order, the heaviest down to the lightest. I would have to make the drink in front of her because if I carried it the colors might run.

First, I covered the bottom of a highball glass with Grenadine. Using the back of a mixing spoon I floated Yellow Chartreuse on top of that. Then… reddish Creme de Cassis…White Creme de Cacao…”

A stool scraped.

“Nobody move please,” I said. With a steady hand I floated Green Chartreuse and a final layer of Cognac.

I stepped back and contemplated a work of art, one layer of gorgeous color on top of another.

“This is probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” I told Jack.

But the girl pushed it away with a sob. “I can’t.” The drink came apart, its colors sloshing and bleeding into one another. She got up.” I’ve got to go back there.”

“No…” He pushed her down and whispered vehemently. “We’re going to have a Christmas drink just like we said…Then, we’ll go uptown…”

You stand behind the bar and try to get the story straight. This looked like a long term relationship finally crumbling. He trying to hold it together. She desperate to escape.

Peggy, the waitress, sipped the ruined pousse cafe. “It tastes like poisoned candy,” she said.

The girl found a crumpled cigarette. He fumbled with his lighter. “What do you think they’re doing now?” he asked

She took a sucking drag and blew the smoke through her nose. “I don’t know what they do anymore.”

“Your Mom’s making her special egg nog like she always does, right? Well, we can have one, too.” He turned to me with a pleading look. “Bartender, two beautiful Christmas egg nogs…”

We made a classic egg nog at Spring Street. Three parts heavy cream, two parts cognac, one egg yolk and gomme syrup in a mixing glass (we didn’t use blenders back in the day.) Shake vigorously and pour in a tall glass. Sprinkle with nutmeg.

The beauty lit one cigarette off another. Not a good sign.

“Talk to me,” the fat kid said urgently. “What did you do on Christmas when you were a kid?”

“You know…”

“Tell me anyway…”

Another deep drag. “We’d spend a few days in town with Daddy…Skate at the Wallman rink…Then he’d put us on a plane to Aspen to meet Mom and Bart. Mom and Bart would go skiing and Francy and I would freeze in that dark chalet…When it was dark, they’d come back with their friends. Bart would try to get the fire going and everybody would laugh because he was so loaded. Mom would come out of the kitchen. Time for my special egg nog, she’d say…”

Almost on cue I laid the drinks in front of them. He took a tentative sip and brightened. “This is good…Just like your Mom used to make… “

She could hardly put it to her lips. When she did she shook her head…”No, it’s not like it at all …” And got up again. “I have to go back there…”

On second look I saw that her long, graceful fingers were yellow with nicotine. The face under that mass of dark hair was gray. The eyes had the panic of a trapped animal. “Let me go back there, please…”

What was “there?” A pile of coke? An abusive lover? Was this fat, red-faced kid trying desperately to save a tragic beauty he would hopelessly love forever? Suddenly, his face had a suffering nobility. His shoulders sagged and he stepped away. “I’ll get a taxi.”

He slid a twenty under the ashtray.

“Sorry about the egg nog,” I said.

He shrugged like it didn’t matter. “Merry Christmas.”

He stood arm raised in the middle of Spring Street where cabs never came, while she shivered in a doorway.

Peggy took a sip of my spurned masterpiece and made a face.

“More like ugh nog,” she said.