Sunday 11/12/06. After some local coffee shop writing, I go to my storage space and dig around for a couple of things, then I subway into work, type out what I wrote, and then print out what I’ve typed, as well as something for Sunday. After browsing the Strand and lucking into a real find (the three original Titan Book collections of Alan Moore’s Halo Jones—I am such a geek), I head to the Pine. It’s exactly two weeks now since I heard that the bar was closing, and if anything the atmosphere is even more timeless, as if—when you walk through the door—you’re walking into a pocket universe, a bar outside of time and space whose doors lead back to moments and places in history, but which exists in another dimension entirely. It’s about 7 PM and the downstairs bar is totally packed, but I notice Amanda from the Knickerbocker in the corner and I sidle over next to her. She points to a canvas behind her. “I just bought a painting for my bedroom,” she says, as I flirt with a Keatonesque slapstick moment by almost putting my foot through it. And this is while I was sober. (Which is an excellent reason why I should drink more. To which the only honest reply is, “Like that’s humanly possible.”)
“I was just going to leave and mount my painting,” Amanda says with a happy shrug. “Guess I’m staying.” Sunday is over by the service bar, so Jeff pours her a wine and me a Guinness and we order food. We talk about the Pine closing, and Amanda mentions that Boxer’s on West 4th is closing soon as well. (This, in a world where Down The Hatch and Off The Wagon are packed to the rafters every night. There truly is no justice.)
Three sips into my Guinness and I find a crack in the pint glass. Jeff is mortified beyond belief; he pours out my stout and builds me a fresh pint in a new glass, telling me it’s on the house. While this is happening, the conversation does a knight-on-a-chessboard move from Boxer’s to Amanda’s new boyfriend (a chef), as opposed to her old boyfriend (a conductor who’s currently doing Altar Boyz), as opposed to her ex-boyfriend (with whom she just broke up last spring after seeing him for five years). We get into a long conversation about guys which is nostalgic on a lot of levels because it brings me back to the days when I would listen to my teenage female friends, who all needed my help to write book reports, read seventeen levels of meaning into a cute guy saying “Hey—what’s up?” Amanda’s story in brief: she started going out with her last boyfriend when she was 18 and he was 33. That was five years ago. Since she broke up with him this spring, she’s been “dating,” as she puts it. I tell her Matthew’s Football Field Law, which says that you always re-enter the field at the point you left it.
ME: Ever wonder why fifty-year-old guys who’ve been married for three decades suddenly start acting like 20-year-olds when they get a divorce? It’s because, no matter how much you grow in a marriage or a relationship, you leave the field at the age when it starts, and when it’s over? You go back on field at the point where you left it. You get married at 19, and divorced at 50? That 31 years was on the sidelines—you return to the field of play at the 19-yard-line, where you left it, because that’s the last time you were single. So Amanda? In effect? You’re still eighteen.
Which still gives her a good five to seven maturity years over a guy the same age. General rule of thumb: add 10 to 15 years to a woman’s biological age to find the age of a man who will be her emotional equal.
In the middle of all this, Martin shows up and sidles into the corner of the bar on Amanda’s other side, where he proceeds to give her incredibly heartfelt relationship advice—advice whose sole reason for existence, to my ears, is to deliver her into his arms for the night.
MARTIN: I want a woman I’m gonna fight with for the rest of my life. Passion over compatibility. It’s about the PASSION!
SUBLIMINAL MARTIN: You are. So. Hot.
(After Amanda goes to the Ladies: )
MARTIN: She’s cute.
ME: She’s 23.
MARTIN: She’s WHAT?!?
ME: She’s 23.
And since she IS 23 (though everybody thinks she’s in her late twenties and just on the right side of 30, and will probably look the same for the next 20 years) I’m guessing that passion is not Amanda’s problem. If anything, she could stand to step back a couple of hundred yards now and then, so she doesn’t get starry-eyed over every hunk who treats her halfway decent. And speaking of getting starry-eyed, there’s a strikingly attractive brunette talking TV and movies with a noticeably older man to my left, and as I glance over at her, she glances at me, and our eyes meet for the briefest of moments. We both look away, but the next time I glance over, in mid-conversation, she glances back, also in mid-conversation. This happens half a dozen times in the next forty minutes, and it’s killing me because I can’t figure out if she’s glancing at me because she’s interested in me or because she thinks I’m some skeevy pub-crawling letch who’s paying her far too much attention and must therefore be watched very very closely, so I can be described to the police when I make my tawdry move on her. Memo to self: stop staring so much, it reads creepy. If you’re going to look, then do a sharp glance and then—I pull out my notebook—start writing.
Your mom, the hottie
I’m scribbling away, half-listening to Martin and Amanda engage in the verbal duel that is flirtation, when my Barfly Sense goes off. I look up. Sunday is leaning forward across the bar, her head barely six inches away from mine. Our eyes meet. Is this where she yells at me? Laughs at me? Cuts me dead? As usual, if I can imagine it, it doesn’t happen. (Seriously—this is my mutant power: if I can visualize it, God laughs and says, “Sorry, pal—I’m sending you something you haven’t even thought of.”) Sunday holds the pause just long enough (she must be taking lessons from Maddie) and says: “So does this mean I have to call you Uncle Matt now?”
I crack up. Then I pull a manila envelope out of my shoulderbag. From the envelope, I produce Liora’s 1984 headshot. “Want to know where you get your looks from?” I ask, and slide the picture in front of Sunday. She goes all pop-eyed and totally loses her composure as she grabs the photo and says, “Holy crap—is that my mom? She’s a babe!” I pull out another black and white photo. “Want to know what your father saw in her?” I slide this one over. It’s the best photo Max ever took of Liora—Liora from behind, totally naked, sitting on a rock, with a beach in front of her. Her dirty blonde hair is loose and windblown, and she’s tilting her head just enough to her left that you can catch the corner of her eye and the beginning of her profile, like the photographer snapped this just as she was about to turn around and look back at him. The effect is hypnotic—you look at this picture and you automatically tilt your own head a little, like you can look around her shoulder and see the rest of her face. But you can’t. You are never going to see this woman’s face, because she is never going to give you more than just a tantalizing glimpse of it. Liora down to the DNA.
“And if you want to know what I thought of your dad? And your mom? And Iran-Contra?” I slide over the legal folder. “It’s all here. My diaries of the early 80’s. Including about six months of my Dream Book, and a bunch of other women besides your mom. Gayle. Daphne. Kate. There's a lot of angry crap about Kate, but Kate's one of the reasons I'm in this city, so I always remember to light a candle for her instead of burning her at the stake.” “For me?” Sunday asks, and I nod. “It’s your copy. Do with it what you will.” “Has my mother seen this?” “God, no,” I say, “I’m not friends with her—I’m friends with you. You I can talk to without wanting anything back. Her? I can’t even say hello to her without wanting her reply to be warmer than she’s saying it—every time I get in touch with her, it’s about being dissatisfied with the response, which is always too slow, or too distant. And when it’s about that kind of wanting, well, that is solid evidence of something more than friendship.”
Sunday takes this in with a nod as she finishes pouring me a fresh Guinness. Once again I mentally game plan what she’s going to say. Will she compare my relationship with Liora to hers and Dominic? Will she start ragging on me for always falling for the unobtainable? Will she sum up my character in a single stinging aphorism? And once again, she surprises me. “Speaking of addicts,” she says, because she is gifted with the same superhuman change-the-subject powers as her mother, “I’m putting this at 106. The Professor has been asking for you.” She heads off in that direction, stops, turns back. “We’ve had to cut him off the last couple of nights.” “That bad?” “Worse. Keep an eye on him.” I nod, and follow her to the booth.
The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing
Booth 106 was the regular table of Evelyn Nesbit—it's where she was first seen by Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as the model for his famous Gibson Girl drawings; it's where she met the young John Barrymore, who became her lover and got her pregnant twice (once in the booth itself and once in his apartment); it's where she was introduced to architect Stanford White by fellow Floradora Girl Edna Goodrich; and it's where she met her future husband Harry Thaw, who murdered White at the rooftop bar of the old Madison Square Garden (which White designed) on June 25, 1906. Originally surrounded by red velvet drapes, the booth is now open and unlit. On the wall is a photo of Nesbit from her Gibson Girl days, but there used to be a much more interesting photo in its place, a shot of Nesbit with Joan Collins which was taken when the two of them had dinner in Booth 106 in 1954 just before Collins started filming The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing, the story of Nesbit's affair with White. The framed photo disappeared one night in 1965 after Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick closed the bar. Each accused the other of stealing it, but it was never found in either Segwick's effects after her death in 1971 or Warhols's effects in 1987.
Joan Collins & Evelyn Nesbit on the set of The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing
Beneath the photo, on a small shelf, is a little jar labeled “BAR-B-Q Sauce.” The jar was originally purchased by Nesbit as a gift for White—whenever White would meet her for dinner, he would order ribs, and she paid the waiters to always keep the small jar full of sauce at the table for White’s special use. Very special, according to suppressed trial testimony after his murder—allegedly, the ribs weren’t the only thing White covered in barbecue sauce behind those drapes. After White’s death, Booth 106 was roped off as a sign of mourning, a RESERVED sign was placed on the table, and per Evelyn Nesbit’s wishes, once a week the bartender would refill the BAR-B-Q jar, as if in preparation for White’s eventual return. The table went empty for almost two years (not even Nesbit sat at it), until the afternoon of January 5, 1908, when Harry Thaw sailed into the Naughty Pine, plunked himself down at Booth 106, ripped up the RESERVED sign, tore down the red velvet curtains, draped them around his body like a winding sheet, and demanded a shave. When told that he was in a bar and not a barber shop, Thaw cried, “Then I’ll do it myself,” whereupon he pulled out a straight razor, stropped it on his leather belt, and taking the BAR-B-Q jar, proceeded to slop sauce all over his face as if it were shaving cream. Then, pretending to stare into a mirror, he gave himself a blood-soaked shave while humming “I Could Love A Million Girls,” the song that had been playing when he shot White in the face. “You must be a lunatic,” said one of the waiters. Thaw just smiled at him. His first trial for the murder of Stanford White had ended in a deadlocked jury; but the next day, when his second trial began, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
It’s all connected
The Professor is drinking Jack Daniels when I sit down with him. He reaches over to shake my hand and says, “I want to thank you, Matthew. Thank you for everything you’ve taught me.” I’m a little taken aback; is this a goodbye, or just the alcohol talking? “Everyone you meet,” the Professor is saying, “everyone you meet in life, is someone who shows you a side of yourself. Someone who is a piece of your puzzle.” “Which means we're a piece of their puzzle,” I say, and the Professor nods. “Of course. We are not only the objects of the puzzle, we are the creators of it, and the players who try to complete it. And no one ever does. We never get more than a sense of the full picture. But if we are lucky, we get a very real picture of what our section looks like. By looking around and seeing who fits together with us.”
Who fits together with us. I think of Ava. I think of Liora. I think of DJ. I think of this bar. “And what happens when a piece disappears?” the Professor continues. “Then it leaves a piece-sized shape in the board. And sometimes it's, I can't think of the word, ordinary? Common? Smooth enough? Sometimes the piece is vague and smooth enough to be replaced by something that's roughly the same shape and size. But the more individual it is, the more unique its shape, and the tighter it fits against you, then the harder it will be to replace. Like the loss of a loved one. It is a hole that never gets filled in. But even that piece—even the least essential piece in your puzzle—even that has the design of the whole in it.” “Fractals,” I say, remembering that Sarah told me the Prof had been wanting to talk to me about this a couple of nights ago. “Exactly,” says the Professor. “Fractals. You know about fractals? Of course you do.” He leans forward. I can smell the whiskey on his breath. “You should get out of your head, Matthew. It's a lousy place to live. Get into a place where the rest of you can live. GLYNNIS? COFFEE!” he yells. “Bring the fucking pot! This is going to be a long night. And you,” he says to me, “put that notebook away. Put that pen and notebook AWAY. I know what you've been doing these last two weeks, and I bless you for it, but you will NOT do it with me. This is for us, not everybody else. You write plays, you understand that. Plays are produced and then they close, and if you don't see them while they're running, you will never have that chance again. It’s like people. If you don't meet them while they're here, then you never knew them, because reading about them is not knowing them. Reading about them is knowing the guy who wrote about them. You have to meet them. Now think of all the people you've met just by walking into this bar. Pre-death and post-life. Those are the only two states of existence, Matthew. They’re what makes this life beautiful. The ephemeral. The ephemeral is the most beautiful, because it dies. Flowers. Love. Countries. Ideas. This conversation. So put your pen away, you scribbling fool. This conversation will be that kind of beautiful.”
And it was.
Alcohol: Guinness (4) Patron shots (2)
Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells