There she is, a 20-something girl standing behind the bar at a diner on the corner of Broadway and Bleecker, playing Continental Rummy with Gus the Drunk and looking out into the still, snowy night. The diner is nondescript, and the pink light of a neon sign bathes the restaurant in rosy glow. For $2.50 on weekday mornings you get eggs and meat and toast and coffee. That’s what year it is, when breakfast cost $2.50 in New York City. The bar is open from 8:00am until 4:00am, although during the week if it is absolutely dead she gets to pack up at 2:00. On this night, there is a couple sitting at a table getting a late night snack, and at the bar, Gus and Jerry. Gus drinks brandy and milk to go easy on his ulcer. Jerry drinks coffee. He’ll switch to vodka down the road and the girl will discover why the coffee years are the good ones.
I see her grab the beer taps and imagine steering a big ship through the wake of time. I watch her and I feel love and frustration and sorrow and marvel at the delicate workings of circumstance and fate. I see her catching a current on the river of my history.
She laughs a lot. Tall, thin, with some curviness so she constantly thinks she’s fat. Short red hair that she cuts with thinning shears so her heavy hair will tease up. She’s blessed with good skin.
She loves stories and stories come to her, the way people live and the things people want. For years she stands in this spot, and people who come back after a time begin to be amazed that she is still there.
In New York, a bartender is known by their following, and her following is of the slightly odd, the kind of person who makes a diner like that their home base. She prefers the people out of time. She has never been in the cool club and therefore is most comfortable on the outside, with outsiders. The city moves forward and is leaving them all behind, in the small pink diner in the center of everything. No one can stop the tidal movement of progress, so they just sit back and watch progress unfold. Later, she’ll work at a wine bar across the street from Barney’s Department Store. It will seem more suited to her, and yet she will find it so boring. Rich people don’t tell stories to waitresses. There, she gets used to being invisible. At the diner, she is the center.
She stands at this bar asking the world for things and in the manner of pretty girls who work as bartenders, everything comes to her. Later, she’ll wish she’d asked for more.
“I’m out!” She lays her cards down matter-of-factly.
“Ah! I don’t know what kind of female voodoo this is here, fuggedaboudit.” Gus puts his hand up to his eyes and shakes his head. “You come up to the Bronx, they’ll never believe it.”
He pushes the water glass toward her and she giggles and grabs the ice scooper. She tops off the glass with ice, reaches down to the well rack, pours the brandy and then the milk, pulled from the freezer behind. Gus says that when this game hit the Bronx, Poker was out. It drives him crazy that she wins more than he does.
Jerry chuckles and lights another smoke. “She got you again, Gus.”
She steps over to the coffee maker and refills Jerry’s cup, and then walks to the table of diners and clears the plates.
“We’ll have the check.” She sets the plates down on the adjoining table and whips out the pad from her apron, adds the tax, totals the check, and lays it face-down in one quick movement. She prides herself on having the tax chart memorized. She chides herself on valuing such a useless skill.
She runs the check through and calls goodnight. A brisk taxi smell blows across the bar as the couple exits to the quiet and snowy street. On the weekend, this corner is a crossroads of the world, but on weekday January nights, it can be surprisingly quiet.
“Jerry, you’re here late. You off work tomorrow?”
“Yeah, taking a day off. They’ve got some event going on at the museum and it’s going to be a quiet day. I need to take care of some stuff I can never take care of on the weekends.”
Gus pushes his glass toward her and puts a cardboard coaster on top. “I gotta run over to the facility. Be back soon.”
Gus works at the NYU sports facility as the night manager. She calls him Gus the Drunk because that’s what he calls himself. His father was a musician, and Louis Prima and other heroic jazz artists spent time at his childhood home.
Gus was raised in the Bronx neighborhood in which the movie Marty was filmed, and he remembered making fun of the crews when they were filming, and badmouthing Ernest Borgnine for not being from the block. “What the hell would he know abouddit? He couldn’t know nothin, all my buddies and me, we’d say. But then, we went to see that movie and we come out of that theater, we just looked at each other. Fuggedaboudit! That’s us! They got it all right on.”
Gus was an adult when he found out his grandfather had been a made man, and that opened up some other careers. He would go on benders for days. During one, he left a duffel bag at a bar across the street for two days. When he went to retrieve it, the bartender said, “I opened it up, saw about ten grand in cash with an axe on top of it, and I just zipped it back up and waited for you to come back.”
Gus had a magical superstition with numbers. This was on account of his third occupation, gambling. Any number mentioned, for any reason, he was off to bet it: a license plate caught his eye, the total of a bill for a customer. He showed her how the illegal gambling worked, with the pages of the racing scores. He was loyal and always respectful as if she were his daughter.
“You ever need any thing, a-n-y thing, you hear me, anyone gives you any trouble, I’ll take care of it.”
He rises, zips his jacket, pushes his chair in to the bar, and steps out into the street. She watches him walk stiffly, head down, around the corner.
“Gus has got the perfect job there.” Jerry stubs out his cigarette neatly in the glass ashtray. It’s about midnight, and she’s happy it’s just her and Jerry for a while.
He was her first friend in New York. Jerry is in his late 50’s, with a pleasant narrow face and a bald head ringed with soft grey hair. He went bald in his 20’s, “so it really was more of a novelty than anything, gave me plenty of time to just accept that’s how it was going to be. Not like these guys with a full head of hair and who freak out when they start losing it in their 40’s.” He was fastidious, kind, curmudgeonly and brilliant.
When he talked about his past with her, he seemed to look on the stories from a bemused distance. He would sit in the bar most evenings, laying down the memories of his Detroit upbringing for her amusement. They had an easy way of being; she just soaked up his whole history and found it glamorous and funny. He never condescended to her, and she never held anything back. They were real friends.
His first love, of course, was the tenor sax. He taught her everything. She would buy cassette tapes at his recommendation and she played them on the diner stereo throughout her shift. The nights spiraled out in exquisite melody. Coltrane, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Bill Perkins, Lester Young, then to Mingus and Monk and Red Garland, Oscar Peterson, and the singers, Dinah Washington, Blossom Dearie, Billy Eckstein, Ella; he spilled all of this knowledge and she just ate it up. He had an encyclopedic sort of mind, and knew everyone who played on the records, every funny story of the musicians.
“Did I tell you the story of that time in Detroit when I saw Dinah Washington?”
“When she came barreling out of the bar and fired shots at a man across the street? So amazing!”
“I guess I did.”
“I was listening to her today. I think I brought the tape back.” She rustles in her bag under the bar and pulls the cassette out, walks over to the player and clicks it in. “Send Me To The ‘lectric Chair” starts mid-song.
“Oh, you gotta rewind it.”
She does, and the tape starts with “After You’ve Gone.” A couple of young men come into the restaurant and stand at the end of the bar. “You still serving food?”
“We are, have a seat.” She brings them a couple of menus and goes to the bar to pour glasses of water.
“I was telling someone today about going to see Johnny Griffin. God that was a great night. ‘I’ll come meet the young lady!’” Jerry shakes his head and smiles at the memory.
She had paid for them to head over to the Village Vanguard to see Johnny Griffin. She dressed up, wanting Jerry to be proud of having her on his arm. As a thank you for all his information and his friendship she dressed in her little red dress with the dice on it, and set herself up.
This was a legendary night for them. He had met Mr. Griffin before and was tickled to show her this world. They sat at the bar rather than a table, because that’s what musicians and people in the know did, to skip the high two-drink minimum charge. Griffin was funny and self-deprecating and sexy in an old man sort of way and the music was challenging and she liked that. After the show, Jerry brought him over to meet her. They would speak of this for a long time.
“I loved that night! Let me take this order, I’ll be right back.”
The two men order burgers and fries. She puts the check up for the cook, who is sitting on a milk crate, reading a Chinese newspaper.
She steps back behind the bar. “I wish I could have seen Dinah in her heyday. Or Billie, or Ella. That would have been incredible.”
“It was pretty great. I never saw Billie but I saw Ella when she played in Detroit. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.”
They could talk this way for hours. He sits here for years with her. It amuses him to watch her struggle with the parade of heartbreaking humanity that comes to drink at her bar. She gets in little dramas by extending herself, trying to help.
“When someone walks through the door and you feel sorry for them, just kick them out immediately. You’re just not strong enough.”
He was wry and caustic and cracked her up. They knew each other so well. Day in and day out, they spent hours together. Long history lessons of jazz, and sometimes of physics, which he loved as well. Oh to be young and have men want to teach you what they know. She was a sponge.
The stories spun out and connected them. She told stories of her own upbringing as well and who knows what Jerry made of those. Once, when he was discussing baseball with another patron, she interjected “that would be the infield-fly rule.”
“I could have been talking about baseball with you all this time!” He fumed.
The tenor sax, baseball, physics. These were the three topics of which he knew everything and could talk endlessly. They went Yankee games, and sat high above the field. She would drink beers and let the information wash over her as his knowledge of the game, millions of facts going back to the 1920’s, would just flow out. She sat in the sun and let the green of the field crack open her retinas. Months of that grey concrete city narrowed her vision and the green and the lights were a revelation. She sat and let Jerry’s stories flow through her.
She loved to hear him talk. She loved information. Give her more facts and statistics and she felt that everything that she heard was filling her up even if it wasn’t something she was going to remember. She loved the endlessness of it. The bar would fill up at happy hour and the 2 for $4 drink special would bring in every walk of life. Jerry would sit at the corner and watch over her, and wait for her attention to be drawn over to him. She always came over to him. He was a kindred spirit and the stories they told to each other bound them together and they had a common language.
She would disappoint him later. The last time they would see each other he was living under the BQE, in a dingy apartment dark with desperation. That’s another story.
The bar changes temperature and Gus reenters, and waves his hand as a greeting. She dumps out the milky water in his glass and refills it.
“Everything alright over there, Gus?” Jerry greets him.
“Oh yeah, everything fine. Looks like you’re packing it up here soon?” He looks at the clock. 1:45.
“Yep, gotta start counting up. I am working breakfast tomorrow, so I’ll be back at eight a.m. Bartender switched her shift last minute and I’m stuck with it.”
“You gotta be back here that soon?”
“Yeah, but then I have three days off. I think I might not leave my apartment the whole time.”
“Well, I’ll pack it up then. Have a nice few days off. Don’t get into trouble.” Jerry stands and puts his cigarette pack in his pocket. “See you this weekend.”
“See you Jerry. Have a good day off tomorrow.”
Gus finishes his drink while she gets the register drawer out and begins to count. “Guess I’ll go down the road and say hi there. You okay, you want me to stay until you leave?”
“No, I’m okay Gus. Have a good night, see you this weekend.”
The bar is quiet, and she steps to the door and locks it, turns off the neon sign. She finishes her count and after preparing the morning register, she wraps the cash in a tally sheet and leaves it for the owner to pick up in the morning. The cook lets her out the side door and she hails a cab to her studio on Stanton between Attorney and Ridge. On late nights she’ll have the cab drive around the block until the pack of men who sit on the steps of the building disperse, but on a night like this she slips into the elevator and makes it to her apartment without incident.
The studio is fresh and clean in an old apartment building on the Lower East Side, with urine sometimes in the corners of the elevator floor, and neighbors who keep their doors open so the kids can ride their Big Wheels up and down the hallway. It is loud, but her studio is surprisingly peaceful.
On her days off, there are long hours stretched out with just herself to account for. She has no television and she sits in an armchair and watches the sky change. Sometimes she worries about what is to come, about the path, yet often life is just a moment to moment experience.
Who is that person, never thinking of the future, just living in the moment?
There was no plan. Absolutely no plan. It feels so luxurious now, to think of living this way. She had read Rilke’s words:
This was the big excuse. She settled in and waited to see what was to come. A small amount of time was spent wracking her brain to think of any other kind of path or purpose, but nothing ever comes.
She feeds the cat, washes her face and teeth and gets into bed, feeling the muscles of her legs popping and throbbing as they relax after the night on her feet.
She wakes four hours later, surprisingly refreshed. It is another gift given to her, the ability to greet every morning with a song in her heart, no matter the hours of sleep. She throws on some clothes, says goodbye to the cat, glances at herself in the mirror and walks through the still and brightening streets to the restaurant. The owner greets her at the side door. “Back so soon?” He is a cheap motherfucker, but over the years she warms to him. He told her a story of his family’s escape from Mainland China when he was a child and from then on she cuts him a break. The world is wide and the heartbreak runs so deep.
She opens up a paper from the bodega next door and locates the crossword puzzle. Drinking tea, she puts her foot on the ice bin and starts in.
The diner wakes up around her. Customers straggle in, waitresses tell her stories of their night. No one sits at the bar for a couple of hours so she is free to do all three of the puzzles: the Post, the Daily News, the Times. She has a bagel and tea and chooses Mingus Standards for the stereo.
Tomorrow, the day off. She’s dreaming of how she might spend it. If she wakes up early enough maybe a stroll through the Lower East Side, reveling in the still faintly-felt distant past of Orchard Street shops and the Jewish neighborhood. Maybe hit Ratner’s Dairy Deli for some blintzes.
Maybe this is how it will always be, she thinks. Maybe this is all there is.
Some years later.
There she is still, standing at the bar, doing the crossword puzzles. A couple of years older, her hair is longer, a little edgier, a little more world about her.
The morning turns into afternoon. An acquaintance sits at the bar, a man who owns a basement recording studio on Ludlow Street. He is from South America, exotic and funny. He speaks about the city and his studio and the music he is making.
“I’m learning to play the drums.” She says it out loud to him, and I see the world pause. The light fills the windows and fills the restaurant and it blinks with the shadows of people walking down Broadway.
Her boyfriend bought a hi hat stand with cymbals, a snare drum and stand, and a kick pedal for $10 from a junkie friend who was paring down. He put the kick pedal on a cardboard box, and in the afternoons she plays along to an Enigma record, learning simple patterns that repeat endlessly. She plays along to the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” to learn to shuffle.
She announces that she is learning to play the drums out of the blue, as a way to break up the familiarity of the diner afternoon. There is Jerry, in the corner, reading a paper, coffee cup half full. Gus will be here a little later, an angel smelling of an old cologne that gets stronger the later in the bender cycle we are. In a split second of fate, it occurs to her to see what happens when she says this from behind the bar, the bar that seems to deliver things that she is looking for.
The man smiles, and writes a number on a card. “Drums? Great! Here is the phone number of the best drum teacher in New York City.”
Let’s stop here. This is the moment I love to replay.
There it is, the card lilting across the bar to meet her outstretched hand. She won’t remember that man’s name but she’ll remember his hand, and the card in it that was to change everything.
You can hear me read this here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/broadway-and-bleecker