It’s all Russian to me . . .
Tuesday, 10/31/06. Warm night—summer warm. DJ and I see “The Coast of Utopia: Voyage at Lincoln Center. Blah blah blah Kant, blah blah blah Hegel. Best part of the play, and I never thought I'd ever live to say this: Billy Crudup as Belinksy. But overall, even though it plays ten times better than it reads, it's like a collection of footnotes to a series of exciting dramatic moments, every last one of which happens offstage. Gives you a lot to think about and nothing to care about. Me it left thinking: "Why can't I get my plays done when stuff like this gets produced? Oh—that's right—my last name isn’t Stoppard."
It’s still warm out when we leave the theatre around 11. We walk from 66th Street to 57th Street, and judging by people I see, the entire city has been taken over by half-naked girls looking for cabs. The ones who aren’t tugging their micro-miniskirts down over their asses are pulling their micro-mini-shorts out of their ass cracks, and they all look just barely old enough to take algebra.
On the R train back to Brooklyn, I think about not getting off at 14th Street, but then I remember I promised Sunday I would see her on Halloween, so even though I was a bad boy Monday night, and bad boys need their beauty rest, I decide to stay ugly, and open the front door of the Pine just as Sunday is coming out to check the tires. She’s wearing tight jeans, a man’s long-sleeved white shirt, and a light bulb on top of her head that turns on and glows once every two minutes.
ME: So you’re, what, a brilliant idea?
SUNDAY: Somebody’s, hopefully. Who the hell are you dressed up as?
ME: The man of your dreams.
SUNDAY: I KNEW there was a reason I don’t remember my dreams.
We head around the corner, walk four doors down, and plant ourselves on the front steps of The Garage, which is what the staff has nicknamed this particular apartment building. Sunday pulls out a glass hash pipe, fills it with some bambalacha, and we light up. When I mention that she doesn’t usually do this, Sunday replies that her mother is coming into town on Friday for the weekend. “You’re lucky I’m not shooting heroin,” she says. “Hey, it’s only Tuesday,” I say. That gets a whack on my shoulder. She asks me how the play was. I tell her that if this is what gets produced these days as a history play, then it’s no wonder nobody is writing history plays. And I start to describe the play to her, and she asks alternately silly and smart questions, and in the middle somewhere, don’t ask me how, we’re suddenly talking about relationships. I think it began when I described a scene from the play and she said “I used to know a guy like that,” and we suddenly shifted from Russia in the 1840’s to Sunday’s teenage social life in the 90’s. And then she asks me the question I always get asked at some point, and I give her the honest answer.
SUNDAY: So how come you’re not married?
ME: The perfect combination of good luck and bad timing.
SUNDAY: Just haven’t met the wrong woman yet?
ME: God no, I’ve met the wrong woman dozens of times. She’s usually either a Pullman trunk, a wounded sparrow, a lobster, a porcupine, or a big fish.
SUNDAY: I love the way you refuse to pigeonhole people. So what are Pullman trunks?
ME: Pullman trunks are the ones who walk into your life with enough emotional baggage to fill Grand Central Station, all of which they load onto you before they go off with someone else on that express train to Intercourse, PA. Wounded sparrows? A lost cause. You cradle their helpless, hurting souls in your caring hands, and you mother them and you father them until they're healthy enough to think of you as a brother. Lobsters are so hard-shelled on the outside that you just know it's a front to protect an inner vulnerability that actually doesn’t exist. And porcupines? You can't get close to them without getting hurt. And when that happens, you always say it's her fault. But it isn't. It's yours. When you impale yourself on a porcupine, you can't blame the quills.
SUNDAY: You sound like Woody Allen.
ME: (I despise you.) Thanks.
“And what’s a big fish?” Sunday asks. “That’s the one that got away.” “Sounds like they all get away. Or do you just throw them all back because you’re only interested in catching them, not keeping them?” Ouch, I think. “And when they’re all off the table,” she asks, “what does that leave you?” “Teenagers and married women,” I say. “God,” says Sunday, “you really are Woody Allen. So what do you call a wounded sparrow who drinks too much?” I think for a second. “A wild turkey..” Sunday barks out a laugh. “Hah! That's my mother—when she isn't sucking off Jim Beam, she's going down on Johnny Walker. So what do you think I am?” “You? You're not on that list at all.” “Oh yes I am. I’m part porcupine, part lobster.” “That would make you a porkster,” I say immediately.
Bar Talk Bingo
We finish the pipe and sail back into the Pine. Liz is behind the bar dressed as Barbara Eden playing Jeannie, except that you can see Liz’s navel; Leland is dressed up in an Air Force uniform (?) and Rebeca is dressed up as Wonder Woman. (Oh—okay, I get it now—Leland is Steve Trevor.) The bar area is packed three deep with regulars and randoms dressed up as much more daring and dangerous versions of themselves, because the rules of the night give them permission to break all the rules, with no consequences. I think of the concept of Twelfth Night, where the lows get to lord it over the highs, no questions asked; I think of New Year’s Eve, where everybody parties like they have a Get Out of Jail Free card; and I think of alcohol, and how it gives you that same permission to break the rules, except that there ARE consequences. And I frantically scribble all that into my notebook as we wend our way through two centuries of costumed regulars to the back of the first floor.
And then I stop and look around, stop and let it all soak in. This is the last Halloween at the Naughty Pine, and Halloween here is something beyond special. This is the night when regulars and lovers of New York City dress up as the people who used to call this bar their home. It’s the history of the city come to life. Mock Duck is sitting at Table 107 with Bruce Lee. Tom Waits is necking with Louise Brooks at Table 104. The Sidesaddle Booth has about twenty female aviators crammed into it, everyone from Amelia Earhart to Pancho Barnes. Eliza Gilbert, alias Lola Montez, is doing Irish car bombs with Marilyn Monroe and Lily Langtry. The Mohican Round Table is applauding as Little Egypt dances with Adele Astaire. Bob Dylan and Stephen Foster are writing a song together. Mina Loy and Myrna Loy are watching Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven tie Harry Houdini into a straitjacket. Joe Kennedy and Big Joe Little are cutting a deal to get JFK into the White House. Evelyn Nesbit is hanging on Nikolai Tesla’s shoulder while Romany Marie is nibbling Thomas Edison’s right ear. Alexander Hamilton is trying to seduce Rickie Lee Jones. Aaron Burr has Veronica Lake in his lap. Marcel Duchamp is sketching Jack Kerouac’s profile. Harry Longbaugh (aka The Sundance Kid) and Etta Place are playing poker with PT Barnum. JB Hatfield is dealing faro to Bugsy Siegel and Bill The Butcher. And Samantha Seaton is sashaying from table to table with Errol Flynn on one arm and Sean Flynn on the other (she slept with them both, after all). God, I’m going to fucking miss this place.
Given the play I’ve seen tonight, there’s only one place I want to sit, and luckily there’s room for the two of us next to Leon Trotsky and Margaret Sanger. This is Table 116, where—on March 26, 1917—John Reed, Louise Bryant, Emma Goldman, and Sanger (to whom Reed had just sold his Cape Cod cottage) took Trotsky out to dinner before he sailed back to Russia the next morning. Trotsky had been living in the Bronx for the last three months, having been deported from France to Spain because of his revolutionary activities, and then from Spain to the United States because, as the Professor likes to say, “Spain was like the Staten Island of its day, getting all the human garbage the rest of Europe didn’t want.” Reed and Bryant followed Trotsky to Russia in August; Goldman was charged with conspiracy to induce people not to register for the draft in June, and sentenced to two years in prison; and Sanger was stuck with the bill.
“So who was the worst of the wrong women?” Sunday asks as Sarah (dressed up in full gamin black as Audrey Hepburn) brings us a pint of Guinness and a Stoly rocks. “The Girl We Don’t Mention,” I reply. I don’t even have to think about it. “Second worst?” she asks. I spread my arms. “All the rest. The Girl We Don’t Mention leads the pack by so much, she makes the rest of the field look like they’re standing still. She wins going away. She is the Secretariat of lousy relationships.”
While we talk, Sunday unbuttons the bottom of her shirt, ties it into a knot, and hitches it up to expose her waist, and the brightly colored tattoo of a palomino racing across her midriff. “Hi ho Trigger,” she says. “Did you know,” I say, “that Trigger makes one of his first appearances on film in The Adventures of Robin Hood?” “No way,” she says. I nod my head. “He’s the horse Maid Marian rides when the Sheriff and Guy of Gisborne are captured in Sherwood Forest. His name at the time was Golden Cloud.”
And with that, we’re off to the races. We go from Errol Flynn movies to Rafael Sabatini novels to the delightful fact that the opening words of Sabatini’s Scaramouche (“He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad”) were carved onto Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies alongside quotations from Dante and Shakespeare by architect John Donald Tuttle. When the Yale administration discovered that the words were from (shudder) a popular novelist and not a Great Man of Literature, they immediately planted ivy over the quote so that it would be invisible. From Yale we went to Harvard, where I worked as a grant accountant during the 70’s—and when, out of nowhere, Sunday asks me about Kent State, I know we have officially gone down the bar-talk rabbit hole. From Trigger to Kent State in (counting on his fingers) six moves—that, and seeing all this living history? What a night.
Alcohol: Guinness (1)
Other Substances: Marijuana (half a bowl)
Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells