It is 9:30 on a crisp morning in Hillcrest. The sun is out after a chill rain yesterday, and I notice for the first time that the monkey flowers beneath my window have blossomed the color of new blood close to the skin. I am on my second cup of coffee and cannot describe the taste of it held too long in the mouth; earlier I was wondering how one would explain to someone insensate the difference between a sip of orange juice and a subtle but poignant pain. I see my wallet next to the bed and know there is money in it. The room smells of last night’s pipe tobacco and spiced cider, and I don’t mind. Traffic on Route 163 outside my kitchen window, beneath the bridge on Robinson Avenue, sounds for all the world like surf in the wake of a distant storm.
I am curious about the fate of the madman who was following me around for 24 years trying to kill me. Where does that part of you go when it’s gone? And he is gone. I don’t sense him. Is he gone for good or waiting like a shadow at the end of the day?
August 1974: New York City. I am staggering down Columbus Avenue cackling to myself. I turn abruptly west on 69th Street, lean against the red brick of a popular restaurant, and vomit onto a wooden crate littered with wilted lettuce. I almost choke because I’m laughing so hard. I press my face against the cool brick, wipe my mouth with my white shirttail. I am gasping for air, my shoulders rising and falling, helpless with mirth. I am afraid I might choke on my vomit, like Jimi Hendrix, and the thought sobers me a little, but only a little. The sky is lightening over Central Park, and at five in the morning I can already tell it will be another hot day.
I press on toward Amsterdam Avenue, still laughing, weaving unsteadily with the night’s tequila. I am thinking of the waiter, Noah, and how he nailed those pretentious queens at table five.
I was behind the bar at Dazzel’s on 68th Street. It was my first week as a bartender, and it had been a good one. The heat wave had brought business into the air-conditioned bar, and actors and Puerto Ricans drank piña coladas at the tables on the sidewalk. Nixon had resigned on the air a few nights earlier, and the neighbors had crowded around the television set, clutching their gin and tonics, their Camparis and kirs. I had raked in almost $300 in tips that night alone.
Noah and I had established a system of duplicate slips with a code. (spf meant “Short Pour to the Floor”; JP meant “Jersey Price” — add a dollar. Or AT for “Aggravation Tax.”) The night before I found myself weaving toward West End Avenue at dawn, two aging men, Broadway groupies, had come in, already drunk, and made lewd comments to Noah and me. The men at table five were both bald, though one combed strands of hair over the top of his head, and both had gin-blossom noses. The balder of the two wore a cranberry ascot. They asked for the wine list. We had no wine list.
“We have house burgundy and Chablis,” Noah told them. “We have cabernet sauvignon by the bottle, a Colombard, and we might have some Beaujolais. Other than that, we have Yago Sangria.”
They sent back the burgundy, then the cabernet, then the Beaujolais before Noah agreed to run across the street and purchase a $6 bottle of Valpolicella. They then ordered steaks.
The only edible items on Dazzel’s menu were the burgers and the chili; the cook, a Chinese guy named Alan, was usually too drunk to manage anything else. He would throw tantrums every hour or so, and I would calm him down with steins of dark Würtzburger beer. Noah took their order and returned to the bar. We were faced with three open bottles of red wine. Noah poured for the two of us.
We drank as the middle-aged couple arched their plucked eyebrows at steak that was either too rare or too well-done for their liking. They sent back four steaks before settling for medium-well-done fifth and sixth pieces of New York cut and asking for ketchup.
“Do you believe it? Ketchup!” Noah was pouring from the third bottle now, the burgundy, and his face was flushed with laughter. “Ketchup.”
My previous experience with wine was all cheap gallon stuff in San Francisco, just something to punctuate the joints and lubricate cotton mouth. I was now enjoying the adult buzz of the oenophile. I felt confident, worldly, and warm as the bar filled with the pre-theater crowd headed to Lincoln Center. I watched Noah fold a bar towel over his arm, grab a bottle of Heinz, and approach table five. He presented the bottle with a flourish and asked, “Heinz 57, sir?” Then he cracked up laughing. I laughed with him, and we were joined by a few customers crowded into the service area of the bar who had overheard the snobby complaints from the two insufferable patrons on whom the joke seemed lost.
When we finished the three bottles of wine, Noah taught me to drink Cuervo Gold tequila from a pony glass with an orange juice chaser. “You’ll never get a hangover as long as you drink O.J. with it,” he told me.
We closed the bar at 4:00 a.m. and sat together among upturned barstools for another hour until we had finished the bottle of Cuervo. We exchanged secrets: Noah confessed he was gay and I told him about my ambitions to write. We tsked-tsked about poor Steve, the bartender who was teaching me to tend bar. “He’s an alcoholic,” Noah pronounced, “a stone drunk.” I nodded sagely, shook my head, and drank. We were right about poor Steve. He was dead a year later at age 32 from cirrhosis.