The Porter by Anthony Lombardi09 Jul 2018, Posted by Poetry in
Art: The Road by Alex Duensing
Motherfucking cunt whore. Not tonight. Did I say that to myself or out loud? Does it matter? I’m alone during what I have come to call the Panic Hour: the purgatory that stretches from 3AM to 4AM. On any given night, if you enter during the Panic Hour and you aren’t an admitted member of our little Fifth Avenue bar family, you are an intruder and immediately on my shit list.
It’s 3:43am when three drunken Eastern European men walk into Do-Over’s, a sepia tone watering hole nestled onto the corner of 12th Street. If they were dodging landmines they’d toe a straighter line. They even seemed to fall in rhythm to the slightly busted faucet from the slop sink hidden at the end of the bar. If I’d told Monk once, I’d told him a thousand times about that goddamn faucet, but as long as that old jukebox in the corner was working, the world could be covered in acid rain and Monk couldn’t be pained to give a shit. The bartop glistens from its recently refinished varnish, but can’t mask what feels like centuries of punishment: the bottoms of endless pints, crashing after victories, defeats, repeats. The smell of Windex and hops permeates the room but doesn’t inspire more than a wince. In its midst was something else. The air hung slightly lower, sighing like the last train out. The intruders found their stools and settled. Suddenly, their presence had a suction to it.
Now lately, I’ve been trying to steer my inner resources toward positive energy. It’s part of the reason why, when you see me, I may seem distracted or stuck in my head. It can be exhausting work when you aren’t wired that way, when you’re an innately cynical person, but those words kept lapping up at me like the rim of Coney Island’s giant mouth: waves don’t die. Emotional hyperbole has us tangled up in the denial of physics, but energy can’t be stopped, only transferred, so we might as well ride those waves until they crest, right? That shit is going to spit us right back out, let’s at least be sure we shed a little softer on dry land, yeah? I counted six steps as I walked toward them.
“You’ve got time for one more round guys, it’s last call.” That was easy. See how easy it is to be nice? I patted myself on the back. I’m proud to say I was cordial and polite, even a bit sheepish. My restraint didn’t draw the applause I thought it deserved. Now I know how Martin Scorsese felt.
“Three Jameson’s,” cried the leader of the pack, who I think looked a helluva lot like Dan Boeckner from Wolf Parade. He gestured toward his befuddled buddies for approval. One dude, parrot-nosed and bearing a slight resemblance to Dopey from Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, had locked himself into a staring contest with that leaky faucet, while his partner in silence tugged at his leather jacket, which made him feel like the cool one, I’m sure, but James Dean don’t sway like that, homie. They didn’t protest the whiskey.
“Is that all right?” Boeckner asked me as I laid out three rocks glasses. “We know you probably want to go home. We don’t want to keep you.” His accent was slightly blunted at the edges; he didn’t seem belligerent but his remorse was feigned. If I’d taken those glasses back, his heart would have broken clean in half.
“I’m open until 4, regardless,” I assured them.
If not a single customer walks in those doors from open til close, my ass stays right here. I’m not allowed to leave early. I was resigned to my sentence. James Dean and Dopey, who communicated with each other through accidental shoulder nudges and blank stares, seemed unphased, but their skipper had spotted the chink in my armor.
“Well, then…” He slung his shoulders back. I reached for the Jameson. I didn’t even have to think about where the bottle lived. It was second nature to me. I used to live right there alongside it. My pours met the curve of each glass with military precision: 1… 2… 3… GLUG. 1… 2… 3… GLUG. 1… 2… 3… GLUG. The booze had settled. Its stillness was remarkable to me.
“Thanks, man.” Boeckner was pleased. Dionysus would have blushed, but for the moment, his pleasure was my pleasure.
At the back nook of the bar, there’s a garishly red popcorn machine, the kind that’s supposed to conjure up old-fashioned saloons with kernels scattered like spent cigarette butts. I’ve shaved years off my life watching inebriated customers shovel these salted packing peanuts into their faces, making more to satiate them, and inevitably cleaning up their splattered remains when they’ve come out of every bodily orifice, often all in one night. You can imagine how I feel about popcorn. By this time, James Dean had returned with a basket overflowing with his buttery heart attack, a trail tracing his amble from the self-serve machine to the bar like breadcrumbs leading a lost traveler to safety. If his impatience and fat fingers hadn’t caused him to spill his path back, I doubt he’d manage to find it on his own.
“Sorry for the mess.” James Dean brushed some excess popcorn off the bar. “It’s stale.” His apology felt insincere.
“No worries. We have to keep our porter employed somehow, right?” I was doing material. Luckily, every bar in this neighborhood has a porter named Carlos, and though there are three or four different Carloses around the way, our Carlos has been grinding the longest. For over 15 years, this saint continues to make his rounds to about six or seven bars in the greater Park Slope area, every day, mopping and scrubbing and bleaching the undesirable aftermath that all of us create but none of us want to deal with, and I’ve never once heard that man so much as groan about it. True, after half a dozen years, our communication has barely advanced beyond pantomime, but there’s a warm glow in his smile that’s healing, like a Latino grandfather I never had. Some people have that pacifying air about them. Carlos radiated with it. Of course, James Dean knew absolutely none of this, so my half-baked joke fell on deaf ears. I inspired somewhere between a forced chuckle and a guffaw from him, but Dopey’s attention only peeled from that fucking sink long enough to scarf a few clumsily discarded kernels into his mouth. Did he think, by sheer will power alone, he was going to tighten that faucet so goddamn taut that the Big Guy upstairs himself couldn’t get that water to flow? These kinds of customers aren’t uncommon and are never short of insufferable, but for some reason I didn’t want to kick them right between the eyes. Tonight, it was like a petting zoo: voyeurism disguised as kindness, our vulnerability ready to spill between more than just beers.
“Was it something I said?” Boeckner squinted, his brutish voice thick and round.
“Huh? What do you mean?” I leaned into the bar.
“Where is everybody? You’re all alone here! You have to stay til when?”
“That sucks, man! I feel sorry for you, man!” His strangulated accent keened and crowed as his defenses fell. That moment at a children’s birthday party when the brat’s arm fold drops and fists fall in hard knots but open with elastic hands. You had to admire it. A smile was charmed out of me.
“It’s not so bad.”
“It’s not?” Boeckner seemed unconvinced, too.
Well, I mean, it can be. Trust me, there are nights where between midnight and 4AM, not another human being walks through those doors, but those are the breaks, right? I figure with any job, there’s going to be a shitty day at work that’s just unavoidable, like you get held up at the office late or a baby vomits on you while you’re giving him a booster shot, so if the worst I have to worry about is a night where I get the digs to myself for a few hours, I’m lucky, right? Usually, though, when all the other joints close around 2, the bartenders and the servers and the runners and all those cats come here for a night cap. We’ve got a little crew of misfits here on Fifth Avenue. They ain’t family, they’re closer than family, you know what I mean? Shit, working holidays together while the rest of the neighborhood was miles away, waist-deep in Grand Marnier and unsolicited discussions about thyroid problems and graduation and pictures from that vacation in Guatemala. Christmas dinner at the corner of the bar, sending relatives snaps of take-out food and bodega snacks from our iPhones, supplying just the right amount of I-don’t-give-a-fuck in a glass so you can deal with your kin without a homicide report. I’ve seen relationships that turned into marriages, marriages that brought kids — man, I introduced some of those parents — and at the end of every shift, when y’all are fast asleep or begging for another shot of blanco, we’re here, huddled together, just trying to take a minute to breathe.
“I find things to do.”
“Like what? Wash windows?” Boeckner snickered to himself, amused by his own wit.
“Shit… the day I strike gold, I ain’t never washing no one’s windows again,” I chided. Monk had a thing about the front door, which was steel framed but glass from top to bottom. There was even a note left for unobstructed display on top of the register at all times that read:
PLEASE MAKE SURE THAT THE MIRRORS AND OTHER GLASS SURFACES ARE SPOTLESS, ALONG WITH ANYTHING ELSE THAT LOOKS REMOTELY UNCLEAN. THANKS… LOVE, MONK.
There was an addendum in the bottom corner, his handwriting snidely emphasizing “THIS MEANS YOU, TOO!” underlined twice with my name. I was clearly not crazy about his obsession with clean windows. Sometimes looking through people’s mistakes — the handprints and the smudged fingerprints — can be enlightening. What we lose in the fire, we find in the ashes.
I couldn’t tell whether the slack-jawed way that Boeckner’s face fell meant he was rapt with bliss or about to keel over, but dead air is a pet peeve of mine rivaled only by Long Island Iced Tea orders, so I kicked the volume on the stereo up a level. I had church organs, hand-claps, and choirs guiding me in spirit, but there’ll be snow banks up at Satan’s crib the day Monk allowed that juke to bump anything but his own personal mixtapes. I can only hear so many Guided by Voices songs before they all sound the same, hissy basement noise ringing out a chorus of detachment. I don’t get down like that anymore. I misspent too many cloudy years romanticizing my self-destruction. That river don’t flow both ways.
See, I love Monk the way you love a drunk uncle: you know they’re lame, you feel ashamed, but you love them the same. I still remember the first words he said to me, spittle dressing his lips, sporting a faded Dinosaur Jr. shirt as he swayed with T. rex hands, holding court with the shakes in his iron fist. I don’t care how old you are, you can drink here as long as you want if you keep playing Big Star on the jukebox. He said it all right there, before I even knew his name… Before I drove with him and his husband to Kentucky for Thanksgiving, Gillian Welch cooing Appalachian folk songs from a rent-a-van radio, so many empty beer cans in the back you could probably get a fresh case with the deposits. Before my mom stayed in his guest bedroom the week of her birthday dinner, an event held at a Monk Approved restaurant in the West Village, which I sadly hi-jacked as the venue for a slow-burning binge crash, what or who for, at this point, lost on me. Before an accident between two full kegs of Allagash White nearly claimed my left wrist in his bar’s neglectfully stacked cooler, an injury resulting in under-the-table disability cash arriving in crusty, hand-written envelopes. I was supposed to take that money, lay up with Mom Dukes in the ‘jects where I was born and raised, and receive state-paid physical therapy, but instead I took the loot and spent two debaucherous weeks in Montreal and Toronto. In the former, with an Egyptian burlesque dancer, in the latter, with a lesbian painter; one whose dalliance was sealed with nuptials on our tongues and matching ink on our ring fingers, but I don’t kiss and tell — and man, no wonder that wrist don’t twist… But before any of this, he told me, you can join this tribe, but I’m the chief. Just because I wasn’t a slave to the bottle anymore didn’t mean that the rules I agreed to had suddenly expired. At Do-Over’s, I was living in Monk’s world, living by Monk’s rules, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t find a way to thrive inside of it. I’ve done it before. I can do it again.
“I’m closing my drawer in a minute,” I reminded the gang. “So if you’re paying with a card, I need to run it now.” I was looking at Boeckner as the Moe of these Stooges. My words didn’t seem to cut through their group huddle enough to elicit a response. Maybe if Dopey were able to pay attention to anything but that ugly copper pipe that I was now daydreaming of giving a rather brutal burial to, and James Dean had it in him to take a proper moment from the popcorn eating competition raging inside his wormy little brain, Boeckner could crack their skulls together like coconuts and they’d all vanish into thin air, the uproarious and satisfying sitcom finale that has us smiling with dancing eyelashes as we lay our heads down to sleep. But this ain’t television. Time to wake up. I removed the stirrers and straws from the bartop to show I meant business.
“What’s good, guys?” I spoke loudly but what I intended to sound gruff probably came across as meek. Did they think that if they just ignored me, that they wouldn’t have to foot the bill; that the party could rage all night? Did Dopey think that fucking sink was going to wash away their tab like spring rain? Finally, my finger tapping seemed to stir them from their daze.
“We… got a problem… man.” The Jameson had clearly transformed Boeckner into the world’s worst Shatner impersonator.
“What’s the matter?” I tried to hide my smirk.
“We are so rude! We drink our drinks without you, the barkeep! Where’s your drink?” Boeckner took his perceived affront with more asperity than I did.
“I’m good, man. I don’t drink.” They didn’t want to hear my story. Who the fuck wants to hear me trip down memory lane?
“Huh? A bartender who don’t drink? What is this nonsense? Why you don’t have a drink with us?”
“It’s kind of a long story…” Don’t bark up that tree, man.
“Long story, eh? If it’s such a long story, maybe we have time for another drink, eh?” Homeboy was persistent, I’ll give him that.
What the fuck was I supposed to do? Boeckner wanted a story. It was his party, right? They were the only ones here but me.
“I don’t know, fellas. I’m a little worse for wear at the moment…” My words trailed off like a lost child at the mall.
“Come on, man. Don’t be shy. We’re all friends here, yes?” There’s little that irritates me more than a customer who creates a camaraderie out of civility for the sake of another round, but who’s to say he was imagining it?
I exhaled and removed the sourpuss from my face, the one that earned me the affectionate nickname “Beeker” amongst some of my regulars, and I decided to approach these guys not as customers, but as human beings. I was clowning on them before; I was being dismissive. My instincts had me ignoring their entire angle, which was simply that of three dudes who wanted the night to last just a little bit longer. Who hasn’t been there? I have. Too many times to count on what’s left of my chewed up fingers.
See, that last drink, in his mind, was going to kick the gates wide open. Life was suddenly going to grab him by the jugular and summon the Father & the Son & the Holy Ghost themselves. Lady Luck was going to crook him snugly her arms and help bust open that big pinata of possibilities that is New York City, and bring to his feet the spoils of the five boroughs — no, no, the entire world. The night had only one reason for existing, and that was to bring it here, to now, to this moment. Right? I remember what that was like. I remember control and then no control. It’s fuzzy; it reads with bleeding ink where I crave clear, crisp lines, but the rush is one I remember well. On a Tuesday or a Wednesday or a Thursday, or any other night that wasn’t tonight, Monday night, this open display of hedonism would turn my stomach, but this wasn’t a Tuesday or a Wednesday or a Thursday, or any other night. This was Monday night. I’ve worked Monday nights at Do-Over’s for six years. Monday was my night. But I didn’t feel my stomach turn or even signal to turn.
Suddenly, those lines started to ricochet around my dome again, like a rabid feline, while the droplets in the slop bucket actually started to unite and sing them, forming a gospel-tinged mantra: drip drip drip, waves don’t die, drip drip drip…
“You sure you want to hear this?” His response didn’t matter. My three guests just gazed at me, waiting with what I could only hope was bated breath, but what for?
BIG SIGH. Here we go. Just be honest! Be raw! Be GOOD!
“Well, I would try to write deposit slips at the bank but my hand wouldn’t keep still long enough to form the first letter of my name. I used to tell people it was because my wrist was fucked up — I crushed it between two kegs once, had to get a screw placed right here between my bones so they’d keep together. Fucking thing split right in two.
“One day I was crawling out of my skin while I was trying to write a birthday card for my grandfather, the shakes made it impossible. I kept switching hands and blaming my wrist, and thought I could get away with that shit with Mom Dukes, but she’s my mom, right? She used to remind me every time I fucked up, right as rain, ‘I brought your ass into this world, I can take it right back out.’ She knows her baby boy, her Mini-Me — Ma’s little nickname for me, for as long as I can remember hearing words, even as I’ve grown to loom half a foot above her. We’re a splitting image, but we have more differences between us than height: she’s a lefty, I’m a righty.” I hung my wrists to discern them.
“So, in my burnt out logic, if I used my left hand, I could somehow manage the DT’s, I could summon that nerve. Naw, uh-uh. That look that she gave me, man. I can’t even describe it. It’s like that look you give your cat when it claws up your favorite sweater or chews through your phone charger. You want to ring its neck for a hot minute, right, but you can’t, you won’t; you just give it that look… That was it, man. I went to the urgent care clinic the day my ass got back to Brooklyn.
“I remember that waiting room but I also remember not exactly knowing what I was waiting for. I’m thinking, I ain’t been to a doctor since that accident with my wrist how many years ago — for all I knew, this was normal, right? You walk it off. You man the fuck up. I’d been to that clinic before for panic attacks and the doctor told me, I shit you not, ‘take the night off and have a beer.’ Even wrote me a note. I wish to God I still had that note… what a kick.
“So anyway, I figured, they’re gonna take a quick look at me, give me some Aspirin, and tell me to call into work with food poisoning, right? That’s the excuse all the lushes give when they’re hungover as fuck. But what happens when that hangover doesn’t go away? What happens when life is just one giant hangover?
“I walked into that room red-skinned with booze and left white as snow. They took my blood pressure, drew some blood, you know, all the usual shit, and the doctor gave me a double take once he took a look at the results. I remember his reaction shocking me. This dude has seen it all. Why the fuck does he look like he just saw a ghost? So when he asked me why I was there, I didn’t pull my punches with the guy. I was raw. I was as raw with him as I am with you right now. I told him, if I didn’t have that bottle next to me when I woke up, the tremors were uncontrollable. I had to have that brown stuff right there next to my bed at all times.” I pointed at the Jameson bottle.
“If I didn’t, I’d get violently ill. I was shitting blood, pissing blood, vomiting blood. Daily. If I didn’t want to have to deal with that, I’d have to take a drink. And eventually another. And another after that. It took a few just to keep my stomach from falling out. Imagine that. That’s why the washed up drunkards refer to alcohol as ‘medicine’ in the old movies. You start off just drinking that shit for maintenance. You wake up and you think, where am I going to drink today so that I can actually function without blood coming out of every open hole on me?
“It starts with one. BANG.” I slammed a rocks glass onto the bar.
“I feel a bit better. The nausea has gone away, but my head still feels like an anvil. BANG.” I slammed another rocks glass onto the bar.
“Getting my equilibrium back now. How’s about one to celebrate? BANG.” I slammed a third and final rocks glass onto the bar.
“Where do you think that ends up? Black-out drunk every night of my goddamn life. Doing shit — heinous shit I can’t even repeat to you, man. Setting fire to everything I touched and walking away while it burned. Ain’t no amount of water going to put out that flame.” I glanced at the slop sink.
“He didn’t mince words. I was developing cirrhosis of the liver. At 26. Think about how much you need to drink to reach that point at that age. The option was simple and terrifying: sober up or be dead before I’m 30. Now whether or not he was being completely honest or just trying to put the fear of God in me is a moot point. I checked into Bellevue that night.
“I made a decision and I never looked back. When I wake up now, instead of deciding which beer-stained slab of wood I’m going to park at until I’ve had enough booze to feel normal, I think: What am I going to do today? You wanna know where I usually end up? Coney Island, man. Watching them waves. I can watch those waves for hours. Ain’t nothing stopping those waves. Not me, not you. No one.”
Boeckner’s face looked like he’d just bombed a test he’d been preparing for his whole life. Blank from his crooked nose down, but with eyes peeled back like Alex DeLarge. Maybe I’d gone too far?
“Shit. I’ve gotten carried away.” I tried to catch myself but it’s a little like closing the corral after the horse already bounced. How could I get this show back on the road?
“This isn’t about me. Right now, this is about you, and you got three Jameson’s right there. Cheers.” A few beats of silence ebbed between us as I refilled their glasses.
“I’m depressed, man. I’m depressed! That’s so depressing.” Homeboy snapped out of it, but he was buggin’.
“Didn’t mean to put a damper on your night, brother. You asked, I answered.” I didn’t feel nervous and that was a surprise for me, almost thrilling.
“It’s not that, man… It’s just… All that… And you work here? At a bar?” Boeckner was in disbelief. It’s like he thought he was rolling to the carnival and was perplexed that he wasn’t being entertained by a painted sad man with a red rubber nose. I shrugged.
“It’s a job, right? What the hell else am I supposed to do? I don’t really know how to do much else.” I exhaled and snorted through my nostrils as if I were in on the joke but the truth is, I really don’t know how to do anything else.
“It’s like my grandmother always used to say: ‘any port in a storm,’ you know?”
Boeckner sighed a heavy sigh. “You’re so strong, man. I have much respect for you. You… you are a miracle!” Maybe it was the whiskey or maybe it wasn’t, but the light I saw shining from this man’s eyes said more than he could speak. I was ready to reclaim my title as the town cryer, but I just shook my head and smiled.
My new friend, however, was incorrigible with his adulation. “This drink’s for you, man! This drink’s for you. You’re doing great. You… are a rock star!” My man held his whiskey up high, and before I knew it, James Dean was joining him. Ten minutes ago, I was cursing the day these guys were born, and now, here they were, singing my praises with glee. I couldn’t betray my relief. I felt years of anxiety flooding from the pores of my skin.
“What the hell’s the matter with you, man?!” James Dean snapped at Dopey, finally whipping his immersion from the slop sink to the perceived revelation before him. “You’ve got a linguistic madman here and you’re more interested in a dripping faucet!”
I could have shouted at this dummy from the rooftops and he wouldn’t have heard a word I said. Turn your will over to the energy of the earth, and you will find a solution. I didn’t care whether he’d been listening to my story at this point. I was just freed by my ability to tell it.
Dopey shook off the cobwebs and grabbed his drink. CLINK. Three swallows of Jameson, none of which were mine. Names were exchanged but they’ll always be Dan Boeckner, James Dean, and Dopey to me. I dropped the check just as a solemn glance at their empty glasses served as the night’s curtain call. They promptly paid their tab and tipped me 20 dollars.
Once my liberators made their escape, sputtering cheers of high esteem as they stumbled out the same way they stumbled in, I found that I was the one bursting with gratitude. It was 4:01. The Panic Hour had ended. I walked over to the slop sink and cranked it full blast, adjusting the temperature until the water was hotter than I could stand.
FL City Council? Yes. Won? No. Stopped Mayan Apocalypse on rooftop with performance art?
Yup. Strange but nice fellow? Clearly. Able to create mechanical engines that run completely on
the energy a person creates while appreciating a painting? On occasion.