It’s 6:53 in the morning on I-57 and my legs are sprawled across the backseat of Mark’s old Buick when a folk song comes on in my headphones just before I start to doze off to sleep. The barren farms of central Illinois whiz by outside through every window of the car as ice and dusty snow cling to the metal and plastic of the grey beast flying down the highway in the early February sunshine. Mark and Will talk up front and are both oblivious to me now because I had gotten a rotten night’s sleep; the kind where you shut your eyes and your alarm clock goes off the very next minute and you feel like you haven’t slept at all.
The sun begins to rise over the Indiana skyline and its’ rays beat down on me in a flashing and warm light. As I should have mentioned before, this is no ordinary folk song. This folk song, whenever played over speakers or headphones or a car radio reminds me of one girl and one girl only and it’ll probably stay that way until the day I die. We all have those little mementos, snippets and scenes of our lives that bring up moments from our past not consciously but unconsciously. We don’t investigate for the memory or call upon it but something minute and minor reappears in our imagination that begs for our attention.
Well time has a way of throwing it all in your face
The past she is haunted, the future is laced
For me it’s things like the raspy voice of a baseball broadcaster, the creaking of the back door when my dad comes home from work or the distinct taste of either M&Ms, pretzels or chips. Back in 3rd grade me and my knucklehead friends would bring anything we could find in our parents’ snack drawers and cabinets and would dump everything into a bowl once a month during lunchtime and take fistfuls of the stuff until a lunch lady or teacher would come by and tell us to knock it off. And now every time I eat one of those snacks I’m instantly brought back to the Elmwood Elementary lunchroom.
The other notable thing I can think of now is the plucking of that acoustic guitar in the intro of this folk song and I’m taken back to memories with her in my dorm room or out in a dark bar somewhere on campus and it’s like I’m in love with her all over again. Even two weeks from now, in a crowded backroom at lunch, I’ll sit across the table from her and wonder if her lips taste the same as they did years ago, wonder if her soft hands feel the same as they did when she would put her palms on my collar bones and up my shoulders, run her fingers through my hair, the same fingers that now play with each other over hot soup.
Heartbreak, you know, drives a big black car
I swear I was in the backseat just minding my own
Mark merges right and then left and continues to laugh and bullshit with Will up front and I close my eyes to the sun as the orange glow projects itself on the inside of my eyelids; I feel warmth through the foggy window, the shadows of trees and trucks slide by the bright sun, the song still playing, my vision clouded, my heart still remembering.
If I listen to this folk song, I can be with her whenever I want. The same feelings will arise, the distant memories and playful conversations, the lips and fingers, but the feeling only lasts for three minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Then it’s just the long highway and sunny clouds.
Sometimes the song in my head is all that I have.
He’s never been to Georgia before.
I spent the summer there last year, he couldn’t visit.
His plane leaves tomorrow morning.
He’s never been on a plane alone before.
Our family drove 13 minutes up North Ave.
Five on the way there,
four on the way back.
Long hugs in a parking lot.
He had two bags with him;
one a camo backpack and the other a Christmas present from our Aunt Julie
six years ago.
Only needs room for two civilian outfits,
he only brought one,
we gave him hell.
Tears swelled in my father’s eyes.
My mother held her shaking hands up to her mouth.
My sister smiled through her tears.
I wore sunglasses.
The car ride home was silent,
the radio on but inaudible.
Tonight he’s staying in a hotel because
his plane leaves tomorrow morning.
He’ll get one last check-up at the hotel:
His phone has 2% battery,
he sends me one last text.
I’m on a delivery so I pull over to read it.
The glowing screen blurs immediately as my eyes water.
I deliver the pizza with uneasy hands,
That night we drink beers and cheers to our brother.
They’ll put a gun in his hand and a line in his head.
He’ll scribble letters in his bunk,
sing the songs of men,
work with his hands and wake up to the Georgia sun with a purpose.
He went for him.
He went for all of us.
He is Pvt. James J. Filbin of the United States Army.
He is my brother.
He is our brother.
It’s 2:33am on the first day of the new year and I just put a fresh pot of coffee on the firehot burner in the kitchen of my house. It’s been a while since I’ve had the comfort of unlimited coffee and food since my parents do the grocery shopping around here so I make sure to take the opportunity whenever I can when we’ve got grounds in the cupboard. The night is blue and cold and a light flurry of snow is falling just outside the window in the front room. I left the party I was at tonight earlier than most guests because I drove (that’s the excuse I used – even on the one night when you’re not supposed to drive). I did it anyway to avoid the constant begging and pleading and celebration of another shot or another smile and laugh and empty resolution or congratulation just because the clock on the wall says that everyone’s lives change when we all start a new year.
New Year’s is a crockashit.
I’m making coffee this late because a girl I talk to from time to time texted me on her way back home from the city and told me to stay up and wait for her. Little did she or I know that I would end this night on my basement couch after eight or ten beers an hour after the sun already showed itself to the new year.
I put my winter boots on, lace them tight around the loopholes, throw my peacoat over my shoulders and take the cup of coffee out in the backyard. My dad asked me to shovel the sidewalks tomorrow morning so I figured I might as well get a head start on it if I’m staying up this late. I grab the shovel from our garage which is a lot cleaner than I ever remember it being: rakes and shovels hung up nicely next to the garden tools and bags of sod and salt stuffed under shelves – I’ve had three bikes stolen from this very garage. We never locked the door, my own fault.
I finish up the back and head out of the gangway to our front steps. I put my mug down on the first step of our porch, breathe the night air and think of all the games of cops and robbers, jailbreak and sidestreet football we all used to play as kids. I take a long look down on Dickens Ave. towards Sewer Stadium, the intersection turned whiffle ball cathedral, now covered in dirty snow, cars slushing slowly by. Everything turns into memories. That’s all we can ever truly have at the end of the day; every special and non-special moment in our lives all turns into a memory.
The street lamps burn brown above and a distant humming comes down the sidewalk a dozen houses down. I turn and see a black figure holding a square case singing loudly in the January air. As he comes closer I realize what he’s holding but can’t quite make out the face. Then I hear the song he’s belting out for all of Elmwood Park to hear: “Gale Song” by the Lumineers. It’s my brother Jimmy, drunk as a skunk and happy as all hell carrying a full 12-pack of Miller High Life’s in one hand and his phone in the other – the song blares from the tiny speakers. I put the shovel down and take the coffee mug up to my lips, half because I’m in need of a warm sip and half to hide my gigantic smile.
He sits down on the stairs and watches me shovel and tells me all about his night – how he struck out twice with two different girls, not all his fault. We were never allowed nor thought to bring girls back to our folks’ house. Not very romantic or smooth. We crack open a bottle each and I go straight from the warm coffee to an ice-cold beer. We shove the box in the snow to keep them chilled, not worried about whether this is legal or not. We’re on our own property after all. We pay no mind to city laws or drinking ones either and just talk and talk before it gets too cold to stay outside so we bring the two-man party inside.
He heads in first with the case and I go back to put the shovel away, the night gets colder but stays the same blue haze that it’s been since nine that night. Snow continues to fall – I’ll have to shovel again tomorrow.
I walk in our backyard where every sport imaginable has been played: whiffle, football, baseball, badminton, everything. I think of all our eleven-year-old selves and reflect on the year I had. Everything that I’ve done in 2013 has led me to right here. The backyard of my youth. This year I saw John Fogerty tear the roof off of the Beacon Theater in New York City, drove up and down the yellow hills of Kentucky in March into the wild and neon nights of Nashville. I saw the rock n’ roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, swam in the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of North Carolina, played Ryan Adams records in a dingy Manhattan hotel room, took a beautiful girl out on movie and dinner dates down in the East Village, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at sundown with my family. I drank coffee on scorching hot Atlanta afternoons, drove through the greens of Alabama on my way to dark and romantic nights of Oxford, Mississippi, drank beers with authentic southern sweethearts, played a rock show in front of 200+ people in my college town – songs that I wrote in the darkness and of my bedroom in the middle of the night, sang loudly and imperfectly to friends and strangers alike. I ventured to a farm in Manchester, TN to see Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and Jack Johnson play to 60,000 people delightedly high on life and whatever else was in their system. All of it in one year; the best year of my whole entire life – all of it led me right back here. My backyard that I know and love so well.
I find a plastic baseball bat and stand at home plate in one of the corners of the yard, snow up to my ankles. I stare the imaginary pitcher down and point one end of the bat into right field. Past Philly’s yard, over the picketed fence is a homer, the three-flat apartment a longball of all longballs. I remember the feeling of thinking that over that fence is just about as far as I’ve ever wanted to go. Get the ball over the fence and you’re a legend, you’re a hitter and the pitcher, (whether it be Jimmy or Aidan or Zach) wouldn’t dare throw you another fastball like that again. And if they did, you knew where it was going – over that fence. That’s where I’ve always wanted to go. Now I find myself in lonely cities and dark streets by myself without a soul to call my friend. But now I remember where I’ve always wanted to go.
Over that fence. These days, my fences have gotten a little higher – that’s all. Here’s to another year of adventure. Another year of longballs.
One beer turns into eight or ten and I ring in the new year with my best friend. That girl never called me. But no matter, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Being lost at 4 o’clock in the morning is nothing to be pleased about, especially when the morning’s first snow starts to fall and the street lamps start to dim out to give the sun its time to shine. It’s cold in Williamsburg where I’m walking around strange streets once again and it would seem to a reader that this is one of my favorite things to do and I wouldn’t disagree with anyone out there who said that because I always stumble around with white hands fisted in coat pockets late at night and won’t apologize about it to anyone either.
And another thing about 4 o’clock in December is that it’s always sad and always dark but just as romantic as any time and place in this whole wide and far country. The streets and sidewalks are wonderfully dead with parked cars lined on both side of the streets and late-night shoppers shuffle along to their warm kitchens where stoves are hot and ready and the kids are snuggled in their beds with socks on their feet and blankets tucked tight under their arms – it’s all the same at 4 in the morning in America. That I can guarantee because I’ve walked alone at this time too many times to count, except tonight I’m not alone.
What happens to me every night when I go out to bars to get drunk is I see one girl out of the sea of ‘em and pick out the prettiest most gone gal in the whole establishment and romanticize to myself what it’d be like to talk and flirt with her. Rarely do I have the guts to go up and talk to this girl, I’ll watch her from afar and study how she sips her iced drink and how she covers her mouth when she laughs and how she whispers secretly and sweetly into her girlfriend’s ear, but when a flower-dressed blonde came walking through the crowd tonight in my general direction my heart ached with lust and I couldn’t let her get away as long as this night would end.
After a few beers and a few shots and few games of tabletop shuffleboard I introduced myself politely and even mentioned I’d been eyeing her since I first saw her. Turns out she was doing much of the same. We bought one more round and talked a bit, on the way out we passed a crane game with stuffed animals and t-shirts on the floor of a glass box and she asked me pleasantly to put a dollar bill in the machine and win her one of those rubberbanded t-shirts and after I got a hold of it – the thing all the way to the top of the wire – the claw shook and cut loose the t-shirt and we laughed and laughed and she held my hand tight for the first time all night in encouragement – so we just kept laughing.
After a shared glass of wine at another bar down the block I offered to walk her home and this is when we get lost – the directions on her phone mess us up north and south and we end up walking in the wrong direction for 20 minutes or so and at one point I’m standing on one side of the street and her on the other screaming and pleading for one another to “Come this way! It’s this way, I promise!” So I listen to her eventually and by the time I’m at her doorstep it’s turning 4 o’clock and I give her a sweet kiss goodnight with my hands on her hips and watch her open her door with a key in her unbending cold fingers and I head off to the subway station two blocks away.
How romantic these streets are – sad and dark and possibly the loneliest streets I’ve ever been on. Telephone wires hang loosely above, paneled apartment buildings glow dismally from the streets lamps and the clang of an iron fence echoes out into the street from the old shopper lady. How good it felt to kiss her thin purple lips (from the wine). The most desolate streets I’ve ever seen are in New York City, the land of the lonely and lost, black plastic bags and never-read newspapers swimming across the concrete, my breath visible in the freezing cold Larimer St. station, two big black women yelling and cussing at each other with big smiles and big bellies, complaining to two hobos about how they outghta ask some real men out next time – all I want to do is be in her bed tonight and feel the nakedness of a stranger before I go back home to the faces that’ll judge me up and down from what I look like and who I’ve made love with, good judgments and bad. And what’s it to them who I love and who I don’t? I would have loved that little blonde beauty with every fiber in my lanky bones, waking up to a Brooklyn sun on Saturday afternoon in white sheets and warm coffee because that’s what drunken life is all about; seeing the most beautiful girl in the bar, buying her a drink and walking her home to a two flat and making sweet love to her in the middle of an American night.
I was supposed to be with a girl from high school tonight but her plans and my plans didn’t exactly match up so I just finished my third beer at Phil’s bar over on Harlem Ave. a few doors down from my house so it’s another night of drinking and laughing with the people I call my very best friends.
The Saturday night crowd stumbles in and at Phil’s it’s nothing to shout from the mountains about because it’s six or seven of us and a couple neighborhood hoodlums and the entire family of the one bartender on duty. We take over both the billiards and ping-pong table once we get there and switch off from either with everyone taking turns and hogging every spot on the floor while the others sit at the bar and watch with glossed over eyes (although Zach would later explain every single rule of ping-pong to two new Hispanic friends) and this all goes on for a few hours as we all open tabs and pull out five dollar bills for cheap beers all night.
And after this third beer I realize that during my stay in New York in lonely coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall bars – lunches and dinners for one – this is exactly and precisely what I’ve been missing the whole time. I’ve missed forgettable, unmemorable, lazy drinking nights with the people that I’ve known for years and years and even more years. And that is what makes them infinitely special.
I’ve missed drinking beer on dark wooden tabletops of Phil’s bar and shooting stick with these guys and girls and I’ve missed yelling back and forth with Chris across empty bars and catching up with William about everything that’s going on back at school. It’s the comfort and familiarity that I’ve missed. So tonight I don’t have to miss anything. I can drink this beer and be with these people and when we leave Phil’s out into the cold November night I can remember nights like these and think about the feeling that I have deep down in my gut when all of us are huddled around a table on bar stools smiling and happy; happy just to be around the people who you’ve always been around, one way or another.
So tonight, I don’t miss anything. Not even close.
Don’t tell my boss but I was on a delivery and a pop song came on the radio that I used to play on repeat when I was 10-years-old so I rode around the small streets of my hometown searching for the ghosts of the kids we used to be. I’m in father’s beat up Volvo and the soft tires roll around endlessly after every stop sign and red light. Both up and down Dickens, Palmer, Bloomingdale. The streets of my childhood. My old house across from the blue and green park that I spent so many May afternoons with the neighbors across the street. I had a crush on a girl named Allison Padiak who lived in a tall baby blue house four doors down and she was the first love of my life. I was six years old. So impressionable and such a damn fool. I wonder where she is today. She had dark red hair and if my memory serves me right she always wore a blue and white striped sundress and that’s what she’ll forever be in my head – a little girl with a big future, as big as she could ever dream it to be.
So I drive by her house and see her playing with a hoola-hoop on her front lawn while her parents look on and wave at my car at the faceless driver. I smile back and wish nothing but love and sweetness for their little daughter. Then I pass my old house and try to recollect a memory other than leaving it. I can’t so I move sadly on down the street.
I make more turns and find myself on the street that meets a row of small houses and the mighty golf course that sits in the middle of our town and acts as our only secret. Everything else is known around town except the exclusivity of this golf club. Caddies know – so do valet parkers and members – but other than that and especially for me what lies behind those trees is unknown and probably will always be. The only experience I have is smacking golf balls with aluminum bats from hundreds of yards away with my baseball buddies into the course when we were young and dumb enough to do something like that.
So I ride down the street and look over out of the passenger side window and there I am on the sidewalk siting on Zach’s handlebars racing wildly toward another adolescent adventure. My best friend and I, free from school or a job or worries or insecurities or even a curfew. We were boys of the night, only to be stopped by the brakes of our bikes and the occasional little girl who smiled at us in the hallways. His hands gripped tightly over the grips and me smiling giddy and purely open to the world. The world was so small then. It was just the town’s perimeters and anything beyond wasn’t bothered with because all we needed was right here; we needed a few dollars for junk food at the gas station, a whiffle ball or two and air filled up in our tires so they would take us as far as the darkness on the edge of town.
We start to speed up, ignoring all stop signs and old ladies so I try to keep up in the Volvo as best as I can. Zach’s Yankee baseball cap bouncing softly on his head and my little legs dangle just above the front tire, shoes unlaced and socks dirty as hell. Our faces are young and tight, our eagerness bright and alive. We’ve never felt tired in our whole lives up until this point and wouldn’t feel it till high school baseball practice or basketball suicides in middle school. But today, right then and there on the sidewalk you wouldn’t have guessed we ever stressed about anything in our whole damn lives. Now Zach’s laughing and I’m laughing and I hold my gut with one hand and hold on for dear life with the other and he speeds in front of a station wagon coming off of Cortland Ave. that nearly takes us out but I’ve never felt nervous with Zach ever so I don’t even turn my eyes to the car that could have killed us. We just laugh and yell into the wind as the driver screams and grips his fists tight in the air and says something like “Hey you goddamn kids better watch yourself you outghta get killed out here on the street riding around like that” but we pay no mind at all and race towards another day in the life of two best friends.
We make a hard right into an alley but when I turn with the car we’re long gone, black specs in the gray November night. I put my foot on the brake and take my hands off the wheel. Where has it all gone? Where have our bike-riding wild-nighted no-caring blissfully young and heartskipping days gone?
Instead of taking her to dinner or the movies, take her to a park. Take a walk with her down 1st Ave. and walk in silence. Hold her arm in yours and stare out into the streetlights in front of you. Glance up at the buildings as you slowly pass them.
Turn into the park’s gates and point to a bench to a sit. Wait for her to nod in agreement. Let her sit first. Unbutton your jacket and sit close to her. Feel the warmth of her in November. Let her rest her head on your shoulder. Hold her hand and put it your coat’s pocket. Put your right hand on her knee and feel her soft skin underneath her black tights. Let her hair tickle your cheek as she rests soundly at your side. Sit in silence. Just watch.
Watch the fountain jump with excitement, the old German man push his stroller by himself, the old couple stroll their way to the bench across from yours, the kids run back and forth from the ice rink’s entrance, the dogs walking slowly but surely. Watch the trees sway slowly in the wind, the yellow leaves bristle and whistle in the cold, the brown trees strong and steady. Run your thumb up and down her thigh, make her feel warm, squeeze her fingers tightly with yours, glance at her lips and make sure they’re pursed and sweet just as you first met them. Sit in silence.
Feel the coldness of winter rush up and down your body and hold her closer. Feel her. Don’t talk. Just sit in the silence of comfortable companionship. Don’t take her to a crowded restaurant or a dark movie theater. Take her to a park and watch the winter glide past you in an eternal dance with time.
Helen Claire Davis. That was her name. I had met her outside of a basement bar down on 14th street smoking a cigarette and two hours later I was in her apartment. It was just one of those nights. She was drunk, so was I. I was lonely, couldn’t tell if she really was but she seemed interested enough to humor me and let me hold her hand while we walked down the streets of Manhattan by ourselves. Our group was a about a block ahead. We stopped a few times to laugh and kiss under the street lamps enough times to lose the five other people we were with completely. We didn’t care too much; at least I didn’t.
She was going apple picking the next day somewhere upstate for her friend’s birthday. I told her I never had any damn plans on Saturdays and have kept it that way ever since I was 11-years-old. She smiled at my misguidance and freeness. She didn’t know how alone I really was – neither did I. But I wasn’t tonight and that’s all that mattered.
She was Australian. A soft tender voice. That accent. I was hooked from the first time she said her name. I mumbled my own and asked her if “you guys” really hate New Zealanders. Ridiculous stuff like that. I was a fool and she was the gatekeeper, the key holder, the fate bearer and all the other rulers of my night. She became my night. I was enveloped by her and lusted after her around every corner street deli and liquor store. We were drunk so we got a cab.
We had direction problems with our driver who was already annoyed by us and so was I. I had to piss so bad that my stomach began to ache. I felt my bladder beat. We got out on a street in Green Point and I ran to her building’s front door with my torso hunched over my waist paying no mind at all to the doorman who assumed I was a crazy hobo who had just been stabbed with a dull blade. I had never had to piss this bad in my whole life. She was on the second floor of a seven-flat and had a beautiful wide-open studio apartment all to herself. Picture a New York City apartment and this was it. You walked in and a tiny kitchen waited for on the right, a long hallway led to the wide open room with a big bed shoved in the corner, a large table full of magazines, bills and other lousy and no good papers spilled everywhere in every direction; a perfect mess. Clear windows with fingerprints covered an entire wall that looked down on the street. The street’s noises came up to us fast and loud, bars still energetic, streetwalkers yelled and screamed for no one, cars honking and cabs flying around barely missing parked cars as they whizzed by; everything in the apartment was still. Then there was a piano, a grand and impressive pitch black, worn white keys, sheet music all around the top. I asked her if she plays. She did. I asked her if she would play. She would.
I slumped down on the couch next to the window across from the piano. She sat down with her back facing me, blonde hair glowing from the reflection of the streetlights. I took a mental image – a picture – of all that was happening: The soft brown lights coming through the window, (the streets now quiet) the candles that she just lit – three of them on the table piled on top of the magazines – the bed unmade, the plants that were dying because she didn’t have time to keep up with them these days, the endless amount of books on the shelves to her right (have you read them all? Just about), the warm sweater she wore, her soft legs crossed under the piano, toes on the pedals, my jacket on the couch next to me, boots being slipped off; and I sat there and remembered it all with open eyes and an open soul. Free to everything that happens in life.
Then she began to play and the rest was lost to the music of the night.
Bob Dylan. That’s what I am tonight. Who I am I should say. Black blazer, black jeans, a dark gray thrifted shirt buttoned up to the neck, dark wayfarers, wild hair and a steel wired harmonica holder around my wiry neck. No harmonica, Mom forgot to send it.
Halloween. October’s last night. All Hallows’ Eve.
The plan tonight is to go down to the Lower East Side and check out bars down in that part of town. Gennette, my roommate, and I are heading down there and meet up with some of her friends once we get off the train. Fine by me. Let’s get to it.
We search for the bar on the late-evening street and find her two friends all the way in back sitting on stools, Sam – a self-proclaimed rapper from Seattle – and Danny – a smart young kid from the same parts of town – all Washington bred kids here in the big city of the world. So we sit and chat and have a few rounds of drinks and decide to wander around for a new crowd, there’s bound to be another crowd right around the corner, every corner of the city has new crowd waiting for new folks to come on in, sit down and yip-yap about anything they damn well please. Please, come in. Have a seat. Drink this. Good huh? That’ll be eight dollars sir. And would you tip, too? Please? See I only make… And I would really appreciate…
After the first two bars in the East Village we walk down W4th St. till our legs can’t take it anymore. What we’re looking for I can’t exactly say. Another bar? We were just at another bar. Girls? Booze? Music? We wander around like ghosts. None of us are dressed as one this year, but if anyone would have caught us on the street here they would have said, “Yup, a ghost. A drunk fool of a ghost.”
We ask ourselves those questions and decide booze. We drag our feet out of a dingy bar across the street into a liquor store and buy big bottles of beers. Three of ‘em for the four of us. The clerk stuffs them in brown bags and we go off like bums to find a street corner we could sip them on in peace. Parks are closed and bars need you to come empty handed with wallets full. Tonight being Halloween, there are hundreds of cops on the streets, all dressed in that slick navy blue uniform that looks so pristine and gorgeous in the soft lights of Washington Square Park. While looking for our corner we pass 30 of them huddled around outside of a deli with our open bottles spilling and clinking inside of our coat jackets. “Evening officers. How’s your night going officers?” like a few smartasses we smile and wave with our free hand and giggle over the curb just before we take a real nice swig from our Red Stripes.
When we get far enough away from the empty streets and busy sidewalks we post up on the steps of an old brown brick building and start to pass around the bottles in a circle and slug our beers nice and slow in the comfort of our own pace and the warmth of October. It was just about midnight. Another autumn month had come and gone.
It’s dark in our corner here – and I’m drunk – but I notice the earthy brown lights hanging above us that make the green leaves of the trees look spooky and haunted, just like the rest of the night. The lights above the street dimming in and out of focus to a point where I can’t tell if it’s my eyes playing the tricks or the mad twisted streets of the city. The lights buzzing louder than our conversations. Cool kids in leather jacket pass us on the sidewalks, shooting us looks out of the corners of their evil eyes only because we had booze and they didn’t. The last drops of our bottles start to drain and we lick our lips with pleasure and joy and it’s off to the next bar.
We cozy up to some nameless main street joint that only accepts cash. I’m in no such luck so I sit down and dig the kid Danny who’s been whispering quietly all night and nodding his head yes, yes at mostly everything. He’s a real sharp kid with a shaved head and a short beard. Red hair if I was going to give it a color. He talks quick and certain and blinks his eyes when he gets excited; sometimes he blinks seven, eight times before he finishes a sentence. He’s drunk now too but his mind is ever-present and he yaps at me for a good half hour – just sitting there with a goofy smile blinking his ass off all night.
Before we catch a cab ride home, (now it’s four in the morning and all the bars are still lit up and the shelves stocked and the girls still pretty even after their makeup has started to run and the music still plays over the muffled speakers and endless conversations starting and going all night long and into these quite and hollow morning streets) I bum a cigarette from some cat waiting outside at the bus station. What’s a Bob Dylan costume if you’re not gonna have a smoke by the end of the night. I hand the last bit off to Sam before we jump in the cab and head home to Brooklyn.
Now this drive home I remember perfectly clear like June afternoons on Saturdays when I was nine years old with my dad and my brother. At 4 a.m., it’s not dark out because the whole island of Manhattan glows like a Christmas tree, but driving away it’s dark enough still where I could close my eyes and fall asleep forever. I stay awake from the buzzing streets and the bumps in the concrete as we make our way across and over the Brooklyn Bridge. Gennette and Sam are talking about friends back home in Seattle but I pay no attention to them whatsoever, for my eyes are fixed on the gray road as if it was my first night drive of my whole damn life. I no longer feel tired. My legs no longer weary from walking around the city at night. The cruel night. I stick my head out of the window like dogs do or the young actor in the new Hollywood film does and breathe in the early morning air with a clear head for the first time in months. The icy breeze stabs at the pores in my face and my hair whips wildly without a sound. I have no other choice but to look out at the East River and watch splendidly as we fly by cars on this historic steel bridge. I turn around and watch the island’s lights fade into November. I smile at all the beauty in life. Laughing even. Giddy and wonderful. I start to think of my life: I think of summers in Minnesota, hot dry springs on baseball diamonds, winters huddled inside my living room, all the girls I got to kiss in middle school. I think of all of my friends back at home and back at school. How happy I am that they are all a part of my life. I think of my parents, the two people responsible of my wonderful life. How did I get here? How did this happen? I don’t think long enough to answer because now I feel as if I’m flying over the bridge.
This is probably how Superman feels when he flies.
But what do I know? I was just a kid from Chicago who got drunk on bottles of beer, having the time of his life.
We stayed up on the rooftop for a bit and I met a sweet girl named Betty from Richmond, Virginia. She had ruby red hair and soft white skin but more about her later.
We all hung out some more both up on the roof and back in the loft until some of the girls decided we better head into midtown before traffic gets bad. It was midnight by this time so we said our farewells to the hosts and busted down the street to hail a cab. Here I was with six people I had just met a few hours before, stumbling around the streets of Brooklyn without a seeming care in the whole wide world; just laughing and yelling into the chilly night – off for another adventure -
We crammed into a cab and I had to have a blonde girl named Katie sit on my lap for the ride – something I didn’t mind in the slightest. She was a real cute girl but I made sure not to start any funny business because she was my cousin’s roommate and didn’t want ruffle any feathers so I kept to myself and flirted with every girl equally.
We rode through the city on our way to the East Village and I gazed out of the countless conversations that floated through the cab and steered my eyes outside at the bright lights of the city and took a moment to reflect once again. All of a sudden I was in a movie – me playing the new kid in town, a cowboy, and the others an intricate part of my story as a whole – and me in theirs. I looked out the window and watched people spill in and out of bars and late-night burger joints and couldn’t help but smile. I looked around the cab and saw faces that I’d probably never see again after tonight and I was strangely fine with that. The girl up front started to doze off and stopped giving direction to our driver entirely and the rest of the backseat screamed and giggled at their sleeping friend and I just smiled along. Along for the ride.
When we got to the bar I got a beer and tried my hardest to stay off the tabletops where all the twenty-somethings were dancing and goofing but Katie eventually pulled me up and that’s where we all spent the next hour or so; on top of a dark wooden table dancing and stomping to loud, overbearing music before I said my farewells and ducked out of the bar all myself.
I kicked around some garbage on my way to the subway station and dialed my sister back at home. She was having all of our friends over and I wanted nothing more than to be with them tonight. I walked past dark rooms with dimmed lights that hid the faces of models and more pretty New Your City vandals while my sister’s voice guided me all the way to my stop and filling me in on all of the hoopla that was going on back in our Midwestern city we call home. It was a long day. A good one indeed. And it ended how it began; alone in bed with my wool blanket held tight under my arms and dreams of more and more people I would soon meet and drink beers with. And maybe dance on a tabletop or two.
The following is from author, poet, novelist and all-around wordsmith, Charles Bukowski:
"For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us."
For me personally, I’ve always struggled and wrestled with the idea of God. I wasn’t religious growing up. Nor were my parents or my siblings during our upbringing. I had no substantial connection to the Irish-Catholic faith that I was brought up in. I went to Saturday CCD classes that were looked at as more of a drag than an enlightenment into a field I was ignorantly oblivious to. “Hell,” I thought, “I could be playing whiffle ball with the guys instead of this.” The classes lasted up until 8th grade and then I stopped going. No graduation or ceremony. No formal goodbye or farewell. No parade or dance. One year I was signed up and the next I wasn’t. I was fine with it. Didn’t think much of it in fact.
Now a young man in college with the intelligence, resources and capacity for thoughts about feelings or powers higher than myself, I see religion and God as answers to questions I would prefer to be shrouded in mystery till my very last breath. As ignorant and selfish as it may sound, I don’t want that help to guide me to life’s insolvable quandaries. I don’t feel the need to use those outlets as a light in the tunnel of life. I’d rather go in pitch dark, reckless and scared as all hell.
It is my choice to live this way. It is my choice to unlearn all the rules and regulations that have been set to keep me in tuned to a systematic, responsible and cooperative society only to play a part in it all. I don’t want to be a “part of society.” I want to be a human explorer of the world. Doesn’t that sound more adventurous? More fulfilling? More enticing? Sexier? I want to go out into the dark world and discover my own answers through my own experiences. I want to feel love with my heart and feel the earth with the tips of my jagged fingers. I want scars on my body that I could be proud of.
In my understanding of it, religion seems to give people a purpose. Which is a beautiful, warm and welcoming idea. I, being a bit of an existentialist, believe I have been given no purpose at all. When I was born, I was given only a brain to think, a heart that beats and some bones in my skin. And with what was given to me, it is my life’s wildest adventure to go out and find my own purpose. My own sacred reason to live. My own religion.
And after that, it’s Death. Notice how Bukowski capitalizes the first letter in Death. It is the always-prominent and most powerful aspect of life. How brutally ironic. It’s almost crippling to our very human nature to look at Death with such fear and animosity. Death. It’s the only thing we could all ever amount to.
I want to live my life in a constant pursuit of the questions that my grandchildren will ask me when I’m on my deathbed:
"What’s this all for?"
"Why are we here?"
"What do we do when we realize why we’re here?"
"Who do we share our life with when we realize what we want to do?"
To which I will hopefully answer with all the wisdom, courage and faith I have in life, “Beats the hell out of me, kid. That’s for you find out yourself.”
And I would smile into their small, eager faces and smile out of life. Into forever.
I get off the subway stop on Myrtle Street and walk a few blocks over to Mike’s place. It’s a brand new building on the corner of Pulaski Street in a typical Brooklyn neighborhood. Kids are playing and shouting at the park across the street, bums and boozers hang out outside of side street pubs. Mike answers the door when I walk up and it’s great to see a familiar face. I make my way around the small hallways and meet his other friends. Katie. LaKell. Josh, etc. The place is done up in such a perfect little way from fall decorations on the wall to palm-sized light blubs hung all around the patio’s walls. It makes me feel warm and welcome.
I sip on the beers I bought and talk to a few guys outside about what I do and what they do. One is an app developer for Apple and the other works for an organization who helps surgeons from India and China stop driving taxis around the city and get them into hospitals where they belong. I tell them I just transcribed an interview with Kevin Hart the other day. They are less impressed with me as I am with them. A fair assessment.
Apple cider starts to get passed around and I begin to get drunk fast; as does everyone here who sips on the sweet drink because none of us bother to keep count of this delicious drink. We just keep slugging them back from mason jars and before you know it we’re all bending and swaying to the wind feeling good and fine. Boozed up.
After a while, we all go up to the roof just in time to catch the sunset dip down over Manhattan. I grab an old acoustic guitar that was hanging from the wall of one of the hallways hoping it was in tune and take off up the stairs buzzed as hell. All of us get up to the roof and watch the bright yellow sun clash with white clouds all across the state of New York. Beyond it, New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. I feel like we could see it all. The sky changes from a calm blue to a cotton candy of pink and diamond – spread out across the twilight of an October evening. I hold my breath a while and decide right then and there that life is nothing if not a gift and every time you decide to watch the sun set, you must always be thankful and gracious for one and can only hope for the same sun to rise in the morning. Because here I am in a strange city all alone with a few friends I’ve met in five short weeks on the east coast of America and there was the sunset, just as peaceful and alive as it’s always been.
And I held on to the guitar on my lap and sat down on the roof’s ledge and looked at all of the nameless faces standing upright staring into the sun and the sky. I was happy. I was grateful for life, for family and friends, for the grace and warmth of the sun and for the liquor that got me up here and down there so many times before.
I plucked the nylons of that old six-string and stared out into the clear sky and thought of all the city people in New York who were sharing the sunset with us. I played for them, sang for them and drank for them.
Here’s to them, whoever they are…
Just walked out of the corner store around the block from my apartment. Heading over to catch a 4 train in route to my cousin Mike’s place in Bushwick. He’s having a few people over for a housewarming party so it should be a swell time. Picked up a six-pack of beers from the corner store, that should hold me off until at least after dinner when we all decide whether or not to dig the bars late at night. I was just able to put a little dough in my pocket so I’m open to any kind of kicks we might run into.
It’s an absolutely gorgeous day today. A sky-blue sky hangs low and steady above Crown Heights this afternoon and the softness of a cool breeze rushes up onto the sidewalk from the busy streets of Eastern Parkway and Schenectady Ave. It’s the kind of autumn day you dream about before moving here. But the one thing I notice when I’m making this walk to the train station is that fall smells the same all across the country. From Seattle to Brooklyn, burnt orange leaves rustle and whistle on the ground with the same delicacy and midday sidewalks shimmer the same glint of evening showers from the dark night before. Kids sound the same; calling their mothers, yelling at brothers or sisters, bellowing and screaming every which way – up, down, sideways – until their little bellies can hardly let out another sound. Old ladies behind grocery carts move at the same slow, peaceful rate in St. Louis as they do in Oxford, Mississippi. Guardrails of porches look the same as they do with their mean steel holding together bricked steps with aunts and uncles hung around the dirty city streets. The tree trunks are just as big and strong as they are here on this street as they are out in the suburbs of Chicago – thick branches cling on to the last of the green leaves before they fall splendidly down and turn orange and brown, the color they’ll stay for the next few months. The next beautifully still autumn months.
All signs of autumn are now here for you to see. Look out your window or take a walk down to the park you used to play at when you were little and you’ll see ‘em. September. October November. Months of love, passion, joy and sweet sweet ecstasy. Fitzgerald was right when he said, “life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” And it’s the same sweetness you feel with that very new beginning all over America. Everywhere wide and far, life starts over in the fall…
The subway train rattles to a stop underneath the streets of Manhattan. I collect my things and walk off onto the platform in front of a rusted away staircase. I’m alone again, like most days here in New York. I don’t mind it. Actually prefer it to an extent.
For a month now I’ve been anonymous in a city where I can walk down the street and never be noticed. Never be identified. I just walk past faces of strangers, trading looks, sometimes smiles. Scanning the sidewalks for a glimpse of something I might recognize. Something that might call upon a certain familiarity. It hasn’t come yet.
So tonight I’m alone again and figure I can go sit in the Square and read from my book. It’s what I do most nights. I take the subway and drag my finger down a thin red line that maps out all of the transit stops and pick one. Randomly. Without any preconceived motive or desire. Tonight it’s 14th St. Union Sq.
It’s a beautiful part of the city. Hell, you can say that about every part of this city. Street performers carrying tribal drums and classical guitars inhabit the sidewalk where the tables selling fine china and posters of Marilyn Monroe have since cleared. Behind me, benches lurk in the shadows of oak trees planted in the park. Steel frames with painted wood. A dark green. Beyond the square are shops that are crowded even at the this time of night on a Sunday. Mothers pulling daughters. Fathers carrying sons. Strollers, handbags, shopping bags. A Bloomingdales, Macys, McDonalds. The Square is illuminated by a soft white light that reaches out from the shops’ windows onto the shiny grey concrete and all the way up to the tips of the trees.
I take a seat on the steps and set my bag down next to a couple. She’s a young blonde. In her twenties. He’s the same, darker hair. They just picked up vanilla ice cream cones from a street vendor. Sprinkles on hers. His is cloaked in a rich looking chocolate. No dessert reservations tonight; these steps will have to do.
A chilly night has her in a leather jacket and jet-black denim jeans. They gossip over their day and trade stories about mutual friends. They can’t believe so-and-so is still dating what’s-his-name. The usual chitchat. It isn’t until she finishes her cone when I realize just how long I’ve been watching them. Because that’s what I do on these nights: I watch people. I try to find something I could relate to. I come up with stories and backgrounds for people I’ll never meet. I let my imagination run wild while keeping it all to myself. A selfish game that I let no other people in on.
After she’s done, she pulls a small box from her jacket pocket. Marlboro Reds. She lifts one out of the package and lets it hang from her lips as her boyfriend lights her up. Old school. I can’t help but smile. She lets the first inhale sit in her lungs a long time. He holds his breath with hers. Now they’re in tune. In sync with each other. She blows a long, thin line of smoke and watches it disappear inches from her face. She takes a few more drags and flicks off the clinging ash from the tip. The orange ember on cold silver slab of stone.
A word. A giggle. Another drag.
Her eyes scan the park for nothing in particular.
It dangles in her finger ever so gently. She’s been smoking for years, you can tell by the way she enjoys it. Up to her red lips again. Another soft exhale. Nothing fancy, but she makes it look so elegant. Beautiful even. Now he’s staring at her just like I am. And if I were able to pull my eyes away from her I would bet there were a handful of other men staring at her smoke this cigarette down to its’ nimble end. He sneaks in a kiss before she crushes the butt on the heel of her boots. Jet-black.
Then they get up, collect their things and stumble into the lively New York night only as lovers can.