Friday, October 28, 2016

Wild Night This Morning: The Last Days of The Naughty Pine - 1

                 “Wells. Matt Wells.”

Saturday, 10/28/06. Dave calls me in the afternoon, just as I’m about to pick up my tuxedo for Stacy’s wedding. “It’s official—they’re closing the Naughty Pine the week of Thanksgiving. No definite date yet.” Dave then goes on to deliver a speech which I will hear at least a dozen times in the next week, the gist of which is, “They couldn’t wait till New Year’s?!?” Well, considering they’ve been waiting since the 4th of July (the original tentative close-by date), evidently not. Because this is it: after failing to get a bank loan in the summer, the Vander kids have gone to another bank and obtained the loan they need to turn their two-story inheritance into a seven-story apartment building. And The Naughty Pine, a bar that was 3 years old when the Constitution was debated, will be no more as of the end of November.

The news leaves me unaffected, and I can’t figure out if it’s because (a) I’ve been expecting it since July, (b) this kind of thing is just so New York City that I don't fucking care any more or, (c) I’m so numb to any emotion these days that it would blunt a diamond drill to get through my defenses. Take Stacy’s wedding for instance. I’ve known her since she was 19; she was one of the first people I met when I moved here 25 years ago, and now (after loving her dearly but never quite falling in love with her) she’s getting married tonight in the Rainbow Room, and I am totally dispassionate about everything except the fear that, in my tuxedo, I look like the love child of Ernest Hemingway and Santa Claus.

Or is it Hemingway and Richard Dreyfuss?

I get to the wedding a little before six, and I’m one of the last to leave at midnight, after making the usual spectacle of myself on the dance floor. I can now do one of two things. I can go to the Naughty Pine, and show off my duds, or I can go to Emma Lee’s Halloween party on the Upper West Side. Which is really no choice at all, so off I go to the Naughty Pine.

By the time I get there, the upstairs is closed, which means I don’t get my wiseass fix from Randi the up-manager, so I sit at the downstairs bar. I’ve told some people in advance that I’ll be wearing a tuxedo, and a couple of them are there: Esma from the Strip House, and Sarah, who’s down-managing. Alexandra the waitress is sitting in the catbird corner drinking something called Gramma’s Wine, which is a wine and cola concoction she fell in love with when she was in Spain. All she needs is cream cheese to be as toasted as a bagel when I sit down next to her. “You clean up purty,” she says. Alexandra, a dancer who just signed a contract with a new company in the city, is  the latest in a long line of Naughty Pine waitresses who are such total sweethearts that they could melt the ice on Saturn’s moons. (Like Julia, for instance. All you have to do is say her name out loud and a room full of regulars will go “Awwwww—Julia—whatever happened to Julia?” It will be the same when Alexandra leaves. Or it would be, if she wasn’t leaving because they’re closing the God damn bar.)  She’s sitting at the bar because she was cut early, and she’s drinking because it’s the end of her first week in her new dance company, and she needs a little pick-me-up. Over the course of the next three hours, she’ll average about 1.5 pints of wine to every pint of Guinness I make disappear. And eat a hummus plate, and have a couple of shots of Jameson’s. My kind of pick-me-up.

SARAH: She’s so nice. Don’t you just hate her?

Did I mention she’s a dancer?

John and Sunday are behind the bar tonight. Sunday comes over and says, “What’ll it be, Mister Bond?” I try to think of a non-suggestive Bond Girl name to call her in reply, and fail miserably. “Well, Molly Warmflash,” I begin, and Sunday does a spit take. “Where the Fleming fuck is THAT one from?” she asks, and I reply: “The World Is Not Enough. But a fresh drink will be. Let’s see. At the wedding tonight I had red wine, white wine, three Bellini’s, a couple of vodka cranberries, a Johnny Walker on the rocks, and two glasses of champagne. So I think it’s time for a beer.” I end up having three. And spend most of the night trying not to stare at Table 102, where Mel Brooks is having drinks with one of his sons, who’s describing this zombie book he’s just gotten published.

                    Sidebar: Table 102

On June 20, 1790, after dinner with Thomas Jefferson at his Maiden Lane house, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison joined Jefferson, Luther Martin, and Aaron Burr at Booth 102 for a long night of drinking, during which the four men changed the course of American history. In return for designating a swampy stretch of Virginia land as the capital city of the newly Constitutionalized United States, Jefferson and Madison agreed that the Federal Government would assume all state-held debt from the Revolutionary War up to and including the years of the Articles of Confederation. Which is why we have (a) Federal currency with Hamilton's picture on a ten-dollar bill instead of state scrip with a picture of George Clinton, and (b) the District of Columbia. It's also (c) why Hamilton lived to be killed by Aaron Burr fourteen years later, because when Hamilton made a drunken pass at a waitress Madison was sweet on, Madison challenged him to a duel then and there, and only the combined efforts of Burr and Jefferson prevented them from adjourning to the back yard with a pair of Luther Martin's pistols. At this same table, less than seventy years later, John Brown met with English mercenary Hugh Forbes, whom Brown hired to drill and train the men he was recruiting for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. And in 1938, after the tavern had moved to Bleecker Street, Robert Johnson stopped off for a drink at Table 102 and scribbled a postcard to his friend LeRoy “Bonebucket” Jones. Less than a year later, Johnson had been poisoned by a jealous husband and Jones had moved to New York from Memphis and could be found sitting at the same table, with a plate of ribs on one side and a bucket of bones on the other, singing for his supper three nights a week from dusk till closing. During that time, Jones composed his most famous blues number, “If I Were You, We’d Both Be Miserable,” which was rewritten by Arthur Freed as “If I Were You” and sung by Gene Kelly in the MGM musical Blythe and Bonnie; and later covered by the Rolling Stones (and attributed to “Traditional”) as “Misery Blues.”

                              Sidebar To The Sidebar 

The first non-white to ever be served at the Knotty Pine was Jack Johnson, when he sailed into the bar with his future wife Etta Duryea on his arm in 1910. When several outraged patrons protested at the black fighter's presence in their midst, bartender and owner Jedediah Vander said: “You want to tell him no? You go right ahead.”

                            Groucho Meets SINBAD

About twenty minutes into my first Guinness, a guy dressed completely in orange—orange pants, orange jacket, orange bowler—staggers into the bar with a guy in jeans, cowboy boots, a guinea-T and a Stetson. If Alexandra is toasted, these guys are microwaved. They park themselves next to me the way a fat guy parks himself next to you on a crowded bus, and they hug the rail like a couple of tourists on a tugboat, leaning back and forth against the rolling tide that is solid ground when you are drunk as a skunk. Over the next thirty minutes—during which they order shots, shitty American beer, more shots, and even shittier American beer—their conversation consists of alternately yelling “WHOOOOOOOOOO!” and “YEA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-AH!” at the top of their lungs. Forty-five minutes later there’s a pool of spilled beer at their feet, and some Rorschach-worthy slosh stains on my notebook. It occurs to me that these yahoos are so drunk they probably think they’re in Off The Wagon, where they would fit in like a skinhead in a prison yard. It also occurs to me that, when the Naughty Pine closes, I’m going to be the one who’s out of place, because almost every other bar in this city is packed with goons like these guys.

They’re also making the dumbest kind of tequila-fueled passes at Sunday, who handles them with her usual grace and style by telling them in flawless gutter French how tiny their dicks are. “That sounds beautiful, what does it mean?” Orange Julius asks. “It means your manliness is obvious to everyone,” Sunday replies sweetly. “Your beautiful womanliness is what’s fucking obvious,” Orange Julius replies, and his Brokeback boyfriend says something that sounds like “Sure is.” At which point Sunday tilts her head to me and rolls her eyes, which is my cue to say, “Guys, if you’re going to talk to my daughter like that, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do it around me.” And oh, the look on their faces. It’s all Sunday can do not to crack up as they apologize, tell me they hope I’m not offended, apologize again, apologize a third time, buy Sunday and me a shot, hug me like family, apologize a fourth time, and stagger out into the loud October night while Sunday calls out cheerily, “Baisez moi en levrette!” and I do a spit take because I know what it means.

Then Sunday buys me a Jamie shot and has one herself. “Here’s to Emma Lee,” she says, “whose party you didn’t go to, so you could be here to do that.” “Thank you, my child,” I reply. “So why didn’t you go?” Sunday asks, and I tell her the truth. “I didn’t go because one of two things would have happened—either Emma Lee would have made a drunken pass at me, or she would have made a pass at me while she was sober.” “What’s the matter—don’t want to be a pass receiver?” “No. Sorry. When it comes to Emma Lee, I’m a running back.” “I think you’re dropping the ball there, Wells,” Sunday says, “I mean, she’s even age appropriate. What are you, fifty?” “I’ll admit to fifty,” I say generously, “but only because alcohol is a preservative.” “You should go for it,” Sunday says.

I shrug and say, “It’s the Curse of Matthew, which says that Matthew is only attracted to women who feel nothing for him, and the only women who are attracted to Matthew are the ones he feels nothing for. And that’s how it is with Emma Lee. I can work myself up into fits of neurotic passion for the lousiest females on earth; but show me a woman who thinks I’m the bee’s knees and it leaves me colder than a debt collector’s heart. Or maybe it’s just Groucho Syndrome.”

GROUCHO: I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

“You should learn to itch where you can scratch,” Sunday says, which is the wisest thing anybody’s said to me in ages, and therefore also the most annoying. “You should talk,” I say, “I mean that last guy you had the hots for, you threw him back the minute you landed him.” Sunday gets all huffy. “That’s because he lied,” she snaps, “and I hate liars. He said he was older than me, and he was actually my age, and I do not date boys my age.” “Well why not?” “Because they’re boys. Do you date girls your age?” “Hell no.” “Well why not?” “Because they’re grandmothers.” “Turn around so I can spit in your Guinness,” Sunday says. “You know what you are, Wells? You’re a SINBAD.” “I love it!” I cry. “An adventurer, a story-teller, a clever hero. Thank you, Sunday, that’s very sweet.” “Dude, I didn’t mean that seven voyages crap, I meant SINBAD, as in Single Income, No Babe, Always Defeatist.”

“And the Defeatist is why you’re still single,” says a raspy voice behind my left shoulder. I turn around and there’s Randi with Dominic behind her, and all I can think of is, “Oh crap, they’re back together again, will this hell never end?” Randi looks me up and down and then does a contemporary translation of the opening lines of The Seagull:

RANDI: Who died?
ME: I did. An ex-girlfriend got married tonight.
RANDI: Wait—you mean Stacy? I thought you never went out with her.
ME: I never did.
RANDI: So why are you saying she’s your ex-girlfriend?
ME: Because it’s a better story.

Randi looks me up and down. “Writers,” she drawls, like she’s describing pond scum with low self-esteem. I glance at Dominic as he shoulders past Randi without a look in my direction. Dominic does not like me unless he's drunk, at which point I'm his long-lost brother. “Women,” I say, cocking a thumb at Dominic’s back. “They walk into a room full of eligible men and cry ‘Where are all the eligible men?’ And then they drop their knickers for chumps who beat cheerleaders black and blue.” “I don’t wear knickers,” Randi snaps back, and glances at Sunday. “Spit in his stout for me,” she says, and sails out after Dominic like she’s leading the way instead of following him like his pet.

Sunday and I share a “here we go again” look. She builds me one final pint as we rake over the Randi and Dominic coals. “He puts the ick in Dominic,” Sunday says, and I immediately scribble it into my notebook. She tells me the story of when he started mauling her in the back room; I tell her the story of when we almost got into a fist fight over the way he was saying “You” to Randi, like he was ordering around a servant. The final pint goes down way too speedily, as all final pints do, and then I find myself saying, “What do I owe you?” and Sunday is shaking her head. “It’s on me for saving my lack of virtue from those two assholes,” she says, and pauses perfectly before adding: “Dad.” “Sunday?” “Yes, Mr. Bond?” We go back and forth like that for thirty seconds, and then I throw a couple of 20’s on the bar, saying, “That’s for not spitting in my beer.” Sunday says the words, “I can think of three better places to put spit,” she says, and then she slides a 20 back to me. “Buy me a drink on my birthday,” she says and I whine, “Your birthday? I could be dead by March! And God knows this place will be!” Sunday’s eyelids flutter like a couple of gobsmacked butterflies. “How did you know it was March?” “I know all things but myself,” I recite with an enigmatic smile. “François Villon,” she says immediately. “Who are you and how the fuck do you know that?” I say. “I am your worst nightmare,” Sunday replies. “I’m a woman who reads just as much as you do.” “That’s not my worst nightmare,” I reply, sliding the 20 back to her. “See you—when’s your next shift?” “Halloween.” “Halloween then.” “Sleep well, Sinbad.”

And I have to admit, I’m doing pretty good as I get up off my bar chair and head for the men’s room before I leave. I can see straight, I can walk straight, and my hearing is just good enough to catch the tone of wonder in Sunday’s voice as she turns to Sarah and Alexandra and says, “He remembered my birthday!” and the laughter in Sarah’s voice when she replies, “That means he wrote it down; he never remembers it unless he writes it down.”

It’s the Sunday tone, and not Sarah’s laughter, that rings in my ears all the way home (I take the train instead of a cab) and when I finally get back to my place at 4:30, I triumphantly turn the clock back to 3:30. Look at that— an extra hour to sleep it off. And I’ll still wake up at 7:30, because when I’m this smashed, I never get more than four hours sleep.

Just before passing out, I think of another meaning for SINBAD: Say I’m Not Being A Dick. And as I think it, I picture myself saying it to Emma Lee.

Alcohol (wedding): Pinot Noir (2 glasses), Chardonnay (1 glass), Beliini (3) Vodka Cranberry (2), Champagne (2 glasses), Johnny Walker Red (1; rocks).
Alcohol (bar): Guinness (3), Petron shot (1) Jameson shot (1)

Copyright 2016 Mathew J Wells

Day 2

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