It’ll be a boozy, woo-oo-oo-oo-oozy night tonight
Monday, 11/6/06. I get an email from The Girl We Don’t Mention; she’s in town visiting her kid and wants to know what I’m doing for dinner Wednesday night. Because I am an all-day sucker for women who done me wrong, I say nothing, and we make plans to run every red light on Memory Lane by meeting at the Galaxy Diner on 46th and 9th and then trolling what’s left of the Hell’s Kitchen we remember from there. I hit the Strand after work and buy three books (East of Laughter, by RA Lafferty; Slow Days, Fast Company, by Eve Babitz; Red Noses, by Peter Barnes), then come out debating whether or not I should go to the Pine tonight.
ME: Do I really want to go there tonight?
LOGICAL MATTHEW: There are only three Mondays left, dude.
ME: But why am I doing this? Is it because I want to be there, or because I feel like I should be there?
MATTHEW THE ALCOHOLIC: Why the fuck do you think, pal?
Why indeed? I get to the bar a little after 8, to find about 10 people hovering around the bar area, five guys at the other end of the bar wolfing down burgers, ten people in the lounge, no chairs in the corral, and ten tables filled. The people hanging out at the bar are all talking business. In about 20 minutes, they will be yelling business. And laughing very loudly at remarks that are not funny. Great, I think to myself—I come here to escape my fucking day job, and now my fucking day job has decided to infest my bar. Kenny is perched on the corner and is unusually quiet. “I just wanted a low-key relaxing Monday, you know?” he says. I make a buzzer sound. “Exactly,” he replies.
Notably missing tonight: Ketel Mike. Until I see him at the Ratatosk Table with his brother and his mother. (There are two Ratatosks—the anarchist from the Twenties, and the radical from the Sixties. The first took his name from the squirrel in Norse mythology who gnaws away at the roots of the World Tree; the second took his name from the first.) The fact that Ketel Mike is here with his mother is Not A Good Thing. The last time he was up here with her, they were sitting at the Big Joe Little table, and in their middle of their meal, Ketel Mike jumped to his feet and yelled “YOU ARE DRIVING ME FUCKING CRAZY SO WHY DON’T YOU JUST! GO! FUCK YOURSELF!” Then he marched to the bar and drank three Ketel rocks shots in the space of 90 seconds, during which time you could have heard a mouse running across the floor. Having poured enough vodka on his anger to calm himself down, Ketel Mike went back to the table, where his mother had been calmly eating her food, and finished his meal in silence. He was the soul of politeness as he bid her goodbye and watched her go downstairs; and once she was completely gone, in typical K Mike fashion, he went around the floor to every table that had a pretty girl on it and apologized profusely while trying to get their phone numbers.
But tonight there is no outburst. K Mike does come over to the bar for a quick shot of Ketel, and hovers over me like someone trying to steal my test answers as he drinks it. “You’ve started a new notebook,” he announces. “Yes I have,” I say, as I write down the words Yes I have. I still feel a little guilty about taking notes on what’s going on here. It’s something I have never done in the hundreds of drinking years that I’ve been coming here, and I know it’s something that everyone who has worked here is afraid I’ve been doing. I remember joking about it once to Maddie, when she still did upstairs shifts, and Dave took my head off about it. “Don’t even joke,” he said. “Everyone up here is worried that you’re taking down every word that comes out of their mouths.” I envision a moment two months down the road, when I bump into Maddie in Brooklyn somewhere:
MADDIE: (This is not a question) So tell me the truth—you were really taking down every word that came out of our mouths all those nights, weren’t you.
ME: Every. Syllable.
MADDIE: (pulling out an Uzi) Die, pendejo!
I scribble some notes on the moral implications of being in effect a tape recorder for this diary, but I can’t think straight. I can feel the beginnings of a phlegm ball in the back of my throat, which means I’m coming down with a cold. It figures. This place has three weeks left and I’ll probably end up spending two of them sneezing and wheezing. Unless I nip this in the bud as quickly as possible. With grog. Lots and lots of grog.
Rock and Roll High School
At around 10 PM, I bump into Anita heading into the Ladies as I’m coming out of the Men’s Room. To any other woman, this would be embarrassing. To Anita, it’s a come-on. I give Kenny the raised eyebrow when I get back to the bar.
KENNY: I know, man; I didn’t think she’d be in this late.
ME: Where’s she sitting?
(Kenny points to the corner stool, which is two away from me.)
How does one describe Anita to a stranger? She’s my generation, she’s a flaming liberal; she’s a personal friend of John Kerry, an excellent photographer, and possibly the most sex-obsessed human being I have ever met in my life. She’s made a pass or two at me, which I contrived to either ignore or drop. And for a while there she was seeing Bill Kennedy, another regular, a relationship which ended like a high school passion, with accusations of immaturity and stalking, and protestations like “I am so over her!” followed by twenty minutes of “Can you believe what she did to me yesterday?” The two of them have so many issues it might as well be a subscription, but they are alike in one significant way: given half a chance, they’ll each bend your ear in five different places, and when your tympanic membrane bursts out of sheer boredom, they’ll switch seats and start working on the other one.
I’m not in the mood for that tonight, so when Anita comes out of the Ladies, I keep my head down and write furiously. She orders a Pinot. I continue to write. In the corner of my eye, I see her looking may way, and I know that if our eyes meet, she will take that as an opening for conversation. I don’t look up; I continue to write. And when it’s halftime on the Monday Night Football game, I swing around and study the highlights and replays as if my life depends on it. Two minutes later she calls Kenny over.
ANITA: I’m sorry, I hate to do this to you, but can I have the check?
KENNY: No problem.
ANITA: It’s the wine. It’s really awful.
KENNY: I’m sorry.
ANITA: I feel really bad about this.
KENNY: That’s okay. And it could be worse—you could be drinking the Chardonnay. It’s like paint thinner.
ME: (Studying that TV set) Only thinner.
ANITA: How much?
KENNY: Nah, it’s on us.
ANITA: I’m sorry, Kenny.
When she leaves, Kenny raises his arms in a two-fisted “It’s good!” gesture, and pours us both a celebratory shot of whiskey.
KENNY: It wasn’t the wine. She left because nobody was talking to her. Cheers!
It’s so high school, but I love it.
In vino veritas
The game ends with Seattle beating Oakland 16 zip, and I head downstairs just as Manuel come up with two cuties, parks himself at Table 204, and orders his usual No-Foam Pitcher Of Stella, which means Kenny is going to spend the next five minutes gritting his teeth while he uses a knife to scrape every last molecule of Stella foam from that pitcher. I give him a look of sympathy as I head downstairs and out. If Sunday is here, I don’t want to see her. After what I said to her yesterday, I have no idea what she’s going to do. Will she throw a drink in my face? (The Edward Albee option.) Will she treat me like we had a huge argument offstage that nobody ever got to see? (The Coast Of Utopia option.) Will she leap into my arms and say she only screwed around with Dominic to make me jealous? (The Woody Allen option—except that she’s too old.) Or maybe it’ll just peter out into an anticlimax. (The Neil Gaiman option.) Either way, I do not want to deal with her tonight, so I arrow out of the bar like I’ve been shot from Robin Hood’s bow and aim for the train, but who do I see smoking his meerschaum outside? Ned Shay! “Matty!” he cries. (He’s one of the five people on Planet Earth whom I allow to call me that.) “What fucking hill did you come out of?” I say, giving him a huge hug. “Is Nancy here?” He shakes his head. “She’ll be here tomorrow or the day after,” he says. “You got a place to crash?” “We do,” he says. “Well if you need one,” I start to say, and Ned interrupts with “You’re not leaving, dude—not before I buy you a drink.” “No I am not,” I reply, because who am I to refuse (a) a freed drink and (b) a man who has lived more lives than any twenty people I know.
While Ned smokes, I bring him up to date on my life since the last time he ventured into the city, and then we head back in to where he’s sitting, Table 105, Tom Paine’s old table. Back when the Pine was on Pine Street, the wall over the table had a portrait of Paine, but it ended up being replaced by the famous Anheuser-Busch painting of Custer’s Last Stand, which is still there. In 1884, while visiting New York as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Sitting Bull ate a plate of clam chowder at this table, which he chose specifically because of the Little Big Horn painting. He is said to have pointed out that Long Hair Custer was actually short-haired during the battle, a fact which no one at the time believed. This is also the table where the original Ratatosk, the one from the 1920’s, held court while his anarchist newsletters and broadsheets were run off in the kitchen. Like the upstairs Ratatosk, everyone in the bar, staff and patrons alike, knew who he was, but never gave him up to the authorities, so that even today, the true identity of each of them remains a public mystery. Unless you get the Professor drunk enough to spill the beans.
Ned asks me about my writing, and because he is one of the few non-writers whose eyes do not glaze over whenever I talk about what I’m working on, I tell him about the evolution play, and the Huck Finn idea I’ve had since the 80’s, and the other two subatomic physics plays that will be part of the Schrödinger’s Girlfriend trilogy, and I tell him about the Bohr play (Bohr’s Model, which will go Buňuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire six better by having half a dozen different actresses play the same character). Then he asks me about movies, and I start pounding the table about this Japanese animè I saw at the New York Film Festival this past summer. “Ned, it is seriously an animè version of Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch mixed with At Swim Two Birds—it’s called Paprika, and it’s a total Philip K Dick mindfuck about people who can enter your dreams through this machine, only the machine gets co-opted by a nutcase—” (“As it does,” says Ned) “—and suddenly the dream world infects the real world so you don’t know what’s reality and what isn’t. Your past comes back to haunt you, your view of yourself gets ripped away, it’s like watching a meme infection, I mean it’s so Warren Ellis he’s probably slitting his wrists because he didn’t think of it.” Ned nods; he’s enough of a geek to know that I’m talking about Warren Ellis the comic book author and not Warren Ellis the musical partner of Nick Cave. Me, I always thought they were the same until about a year ago, when I got embarrassingly schooled about them both by the Professor over Glenfiddich.
So while I’m raving about this movie, who do I hear behind me but the Professor, talking about Philip K Dick, and death.
PROFESSOR: Philip K Dick is brilliant because he gets it, he gets that the world conforms to our individual perceptions, even though its existence, its bloodstream if you will, is split between the shared and the personal. Personal reality says that when I die, the universe dies with me. Shared reality says that when I die, the universe lives on. But it’s completely paradoxical, because the universe is made up of individuals who, in effect, kill a piece of that universe every time one of them dies. All these units which create and uphold a universe, which nevertheless outlives the loss of each and every one of them. How does that make any sense, unless the CONSENSUAL reality has a cumulative power that the individual reality does not? It’s like the universe is this cosmic parasite, feeding off the belief of each of its members, even as it sucks the life out of them. Which is more Lovecraft than Dick, but you get the idea. It’s like this bar. You could make a Lovecraft novel out of this bar, which feeds on the energies of its patrons to live. Or you could do a Philip K Dick version in reverse—because in this case, it’s the universe that’s going to die, and all the individual members who kept it alive by believing in it are going to have to go on living. If you want to call that life.
And there is such a tone in the Professor’s voice—something deep and not just resigned to failure but dead to even an attempt at success—that I can’t help myself, I turn around and say, “You okay, Professor?”
He smiles at me, but it’s not a smile of pleasure. There’s nothing pleasant about him at all; he looks like a cross between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing at the end of a Hammer horror movie, where both the creation and the creator know that they are monsters to the bone and thus deserve whatever horrible fate Life has in store for them. “Matthew! Ned!” he cries, waving a half-full bell glass of scotch. “Come join us. We shall not pass this way again—so let us at least do it together while we can.” I look at Ned. He nods imperceptibly. We both slide out of our booth and swing around to the Professor’s, to discover that he’s sitting across from Sunday and a woman around my age with whitish blonde hair. Sunday and I have a moment. I say “Hey,” and try and fail to keep my face unreadable; she says “Hey,” and succeeds at keeping hers a mask. Then I sit next to the Professor, and Ned sits next to me, and Sunday says, “This is turning into the know-it-all table.” “Then you’ll finally get an education,” says the woman next to her. “Fuck you,” says Sunday in a careless tone of voice, and then introduces us. “Mum, this is Guinness Matt; he likes to think he’s a writer, but he’d rather sleep with rejection than marry success. Matty,” she says, knowing how much I hate being called that, “my mother Dolores.”
Sunday’s mother turns around and extends her hand. “Matthew,” she says. I take her hand. “Liora,” I say to The Girl We Don’t Mention.
Alcohol: Guinness (5) Jameson’s (3)
Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells
Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells