Monday, April 21, 2008

On bars

A lot in this life depends on the bar you walk into. You can’t just step off the Chinatown express in the bowels of Manhattan, ride up to a nice-sounding stop on the redline, and pluck a bar out of the air at random.
For all you know, there might be a voodoo priest seating tourists. There might be an animatronic Dr. Jekyll cackling about destroying Frankenstein’s Monster with disco. Hell, there might even be a $15 price tag on a shot and a beer - you don’t know! How could you until it’s too late?

The night always seems so full of possibilities, getting off that bus. There’s the possibility the guy you came to see hasn’t backslid so far into alcoholism that he’s passed out in a public bathroom and is therefore not picking up his phone.
There’s the (somewhat more limited) possibility you’ll find someone else to put you up for the night. There’s the (extraordinarily limited) possibility you’ll stumble across that girl from the Bulgarian Bar again, the one that was giving you the eyes during that one week she worked there before she disappeared forever out of your life (sigh).
Then there’s the (absolutely unreckoned) possibility that your barstool, essentially a piston bolted into the ground, will start sinking under you.

“How do I tell the bartender in French that my barstool is being eaten by the floor?”
“It’s not French,” with contempt, from a waitress. “It’s Portuguese.”
“I don’t care what the hell it is, my goddamn seat is disappearing out from under me!”
She turned away. My elbows were now level with my head and slipping higher. The bartender said that happens sometimes, it’s unpredictable. I didn’t buy it. I only had $17 walking in the door and she knew it. I moved to the next stool, got some cash out of an ATM, and that new stool didn’t move a hair on me once I started plinking down twenties. Way I see it, you’re out of cash, bartender flicks a switch, stool goes down. Time to leave.
I hate theme bars.
So I went for a walk, and found a really nice little Japanese place. New joint, apparently – there was a lot of gossip among the staff about laundering of money to get it open on time, as well as a wishy-washy and apartment complex.
I just wanted some sake, but the bartender, god, what a guy...
I sat there for a while alone at the end of the bar until the two girls next to me disappeared and I annexed one of their seats. They came back, apologies and don’t-worry-about-its were exchanged, and we got to talking.
One of the girls, this gorgeous Korean woman, name like Ahk or Anhk or something, was the bartender’s wife. Her friend, a cornfed Midwestern girl, reminded me of an old flame. Cornfed was in fashion, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She seemed a bit overwhelmed, but a trooper – she was gonna get through living in New York City, by god, even if it killed her. Like it was something to persevere, to conquer. As though, on her deathbed, she could declare: “Well, I did that! I might have walked away from a good many relationships, jobs, and daddy issues in my life, but I lived in New York City all by myself and I never regretted a day of it!”
It wasn’t long before someone asked where I was from (Philly) and where I was staying (nowhere, apparently).
“Aren’t you nervous?” asked Cornfed.
All night long like that: “Aren’t you nervous? Aren’t you nervous?”
“Is that an offer?” It wasn’t. I turned around and another glorious beer, what must have been the third I hadn’t ordered, was glistening before me on the bar. Unasked for, unaffordable, no questions asked.
Well, maybe I was a little nervous. But then again, maybe I was getting less nervous with every drink. I hadn’t slept outside in a while, but I knew I could, cold or no.
Then came the mixed drinks, the bathroom breaks, who did what and why over cigarettes, the proposition of a next bar. My tab, after a few hours, was $15 – what I’d paid for two measly drinks at the “wacky” voodoo bar earlier.
Suddenly, Cornfed was gone, a man on par with Jackie Mason for Jewish stereotypes was yapping to me about his teenage daughter's friends, and the bar was closing up shop. I was directed to the next bar, but missed the subway stop and experimented with a nap.

“Last stop! Wake up wake up wake up!”
There’s a lot of nice people slouching around the Jamaica station at 4 a.m. waiting for the next train in the opposite direction. One even asked if he could hold a dollar for me, but I declined his generous offer. At any rate, I had confirmed my idea for shelter was plausible, and all it cost me was the $2 riding fee.
Back in Manhattan, I stopped into a Greek diner for a Monte Cristo and too much coffee, trying to fool myself into thinking I wouldn’t really have to ride the trains if I didn’t want to. Why, it was already getting on 6 a.m. – I could just percolate my way to sobriety and the promise of a new day!

You pick your head up for a second after disembarking from the end of the line and there’s three people in the car. Pick it up again, and there’s 18, many of them looking at you. (What – was I snoring?) Next time it’s back down to five. Then over the rails, next platform, last stop, next train, do it all again, but with sunlight this time. The sunlight doesn’t make it any different, or better. After a few hours, you call your friend in Lon Giland.

The futon you used to own is incredibly comfy after the awful plastic chairs you’ve been sleeping on for the better part of the day, and the “I Am Legend” movie is rife with comedic possibility. You wait with fingers crossed for Will Smith to say, “Aw, HELL no!” He never does. You lose a $5 bet.
By the time the tacos have settled in your belly, there’s a pint of Jack in there to keep them company and you’re staring at maybe the best jukebox selection you’ve ever seen (Neutral Milk Hotel? Next to Mogwai? When does that ever happen?) when a pretty little thing steals your hat and a kiss.
When someone later asks you to describe the night in Haiku form, the only thing that comes to mind is:

Direct descendant
of Prez. Rutherford B. Hayes
her eyes rolled four times

Below you that night, for what seems like the first time in weeks, is a nice, solid, non-platform-changing bed. Above is the great, great, great granddaughter of what Utah Philips once called a “do-nothing” president.
As a bonus, you can brag that you now have a more “intimate” knowledge of politics.
And you do. Every damn chance you get.
Like I said: A lot in this life depends on the bar you walk into.