by John Pietaro
Not only in the realm of film noir does New York City thrive by night. It is a land-mass pulsing and alive with movement, with sound, with sensation, carefully containing the myths of a people…
Tired workers on their way to dark, late shifts or returning home to the quietude of the earliest morning hours;
The purplish glare of West Side traffic bouncing off a lonesome diner’s mirrored windows;
Mid-winter’s damp chill on downtown revelers breaking night, seeking explanations for waiting family members;
The scents of autumn dusk in throbbing Greenwich Village;
The echo of footsteps bouncing through urban canyons;
Shining, wet streets under late-night throngs in Times Square;
Long shadows thrown against sleeping office buildings on Third Avenue;
The crowds, the vibrancy, the noise, coupled with the unsettling stillness of a starless night hovering over an empty street.
This is New York at night and these are four tales of its most restless inhabitants,
its Night People.
1) The Cell
“It’s so close in here, so close”, said the woman to no one in particular.
“With two weeks before winter officially gets here, the radiator burns like its January…”, she trailed off somberly, listening to the polyrhythmic tap dancing of the rising steam.
Rubbing her forehead, the woman dropped her fork suddenly, ignoring the clank-clunk that came with its bouncing off the dish and onto the table, leaving reddish-brown markings of food-stuff on the slightly yellowed Formica. She rose to her bare feet and walked slowly toward the furthest corner of her confining studio apartment. The thermometer over the sink read 68 degrees, though she believed that the inexpensive thing was way off. It was all she could do to keep from throwing it out.
“Like a cell, just like a prison cell”, she thought inwardly, her body tensing as she exhaled through her teeth. As she walked, the woman’s shoulders were hunkered down defensively as if trying to avoid
sudden attack, but she was unaware of this. The roundness of her back over the years had become common place. The curvature was, by this time, comfortable. Had she looked at her reflection as she passed the mirror tacked to the closet door, she may have thought of her mother who’d always brandished this tired posture. In fact, mother wore her fatigue like a badge of courage, a sure sign of one, “who never feared hard work”, she was wont to say. She usually said this in the same breath as, “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. Mother had worked as a cleaning woman by night, but raised four children by day, simply telling neighbors that she was a “home maker”. The term housewife never really fit mother, especially as father had never really been there.
No, the woman rarely took note of the mirror. It was usually easier to bypass it even in such a small space, as she walked by, cat like, with silent steps.
With no territory left to conquer, she rested her face against the cool glass window, almost as if it alone stopped her from continuing on, stepping out just beyond the tight walls about her. The gray-blue early winter sky hovered over Brooklyn like an imaginary landscape, a painted backdrop in an old movie.
The woman angled her eyes first up at the outline of Manhattan in the distance and then downward toward the harried five o’clock throngs moving in a confused unison toward the subway. From her sixth-floor “city view”—as the real estate agent glossily explained when she first came to see the apartment, then fresh with the smell of clean white paint—everything seemed slightly out of reach.
“Where you going? Where are you all going?, she said, more to the dusty glass than to those out of vocal range. “All noise, all rush, all the time”. She felt her belly tighten as she contemplated the anxious, quivering street scene below. She never liked to be crowded-in like that.
“Like drones moving around a beehive—that’s how they look. That’s exactly what they look like”, she said aloud while almost looking back at her faint, blurred reflection in the fogged glass. And then she echoed it again, downwardly this time: “That’s exactly what YOU look like”, but no one heard, no one responded.
So taken was she with this familiar late-afternoon display that she at first ignored the smell of the coffee pot, sitting atop a lighted pilot on her stove, beginning to burn.
“Damn”, she exclaimed, rushing across the room to the dining area that was separated from her living area by a couch and a throw rug. She got to the stove just as the bubbling brew streamed over the spout, hissing at her as the flames extinguished in the stream of browning fluid.
“Not my day”, she told the stove, “Not my day at all.”
She left the half-done pot of coffee on the simmering black metal and simply turned the stove-top switch to OFF. Better to leave this till later when she could think about it more clearly. “Too much going on just now”, she thought, shaking her head. “Definitely” she whispered aloud to the otherwise still room.
As day faded to black the woman clicked on the floor lamp that stood vigil by the couch. She drew the blinds tightly, shutting out the glare from the neon sign on the building’s edge. It seemed to offer an almost warming sensation to the room, oddly enough. She turned on the television which she insisted remain off during most of the day, afraid to become too comfortable in the bluish, flickering haze. She was hell-bent on not making the TV into her company, yet she invited its clash of programming and commercials into her secured hovel for a couple of hours at a time. After watching the news and part of a black and white movie on cable (something about truck drivers with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart), she turned the television off. It was 8:45PM. She rose, grabbed her coat from the small closet and buttoned it up to the neck. She wrapped her neck with a paisley scarf, pulled on her cap and grabbed her big shoulder bag, now ready to emerge.
The woman stepped out into the hallway, sounds from the other apartments bouncing off the hard tiled floor and tall ceiling. Bits of muffled conversation that are confounded by the barriers around her, the throb of music, a baby’s distant wail, arguments, laughter, and her neighbor Bill Lampert’s always-too-loud television cranked up for the sake of the hearing aid he keeps set too low, but maybe more for the sake of anyone who’s straining to listen to all that goes on behind closed doors.
The smell of far-off cooking, saucey spices, permeates the halls as she waits for the elevator, as Lampert’s favorite show, blaring in the foreground, fights for her attention.
“God, why does it have to be Fox News of all things?”, she thought as she stood impatiently waiting for the clicking old elevator, fending off the irritated rants of this or that right-wing pundit. Enjoying the strange smorgasbord of far-away foods still wafting in the air, she breathed deeply as the elevator suddenly appeared, ready to carry her down to the outside world.
The woman emerged from the building on the still-busy avenue, absorbing the blast of frosty air like a thirsty sponge. The damp breeze enlivened her and she looked about while making a rapid left turn to the next corner, moving-- in one felt swoop really--to the next block. Though it was late, the downtown streets were still busy. Christmas songs, usually that thing by Bing Crosby and David Bowie, alternating with Andy Williams, the Jackson 5, some contemporary dance acts and scratchy recordings of heavenly choirs, were everywhere, beckoning. Tired-looking newsstand owners were tying up papers as people were finishing up shopping, running out of neighborhood bars (after-work cocktails, of course) and standing on corners talking. Yuppies clashed with the community’s older residents, those who hung on for dear life as rents were going through the roof, and everyone had something to say, somewhere to go.
Three and one-half blocks later, quickly advancing into a quieter, more residential street, the woman was able to see a horizon where the rush, the voices, the noise, the crush came to an end . She headed that way, gulping deep breaths of chilly air as she moved toward the welcoming shadows.
The woman turned the next corner and melted into the cool blackness.
2) Wish You Were Here
It was almost 6:40 PM, not quite dark yet, but the blue above him was fading fast. Ray leaned against the towering lamp post as he did every evening while waiting for the uptown bus. Staring into the clatter of a New York street scene splattered in a web of headlights, one would be hard-pressed to see too far into the distance but Ray impatiently watched for his ride through the murk, anticipating its appearance from within the metallic sheath of traffic going up the Avenue of the Americas. “Jesus, this bus is always so damned slow. I could almost walk to 48th Street in the time it takes for it to get here”.
Here was the heart of Greenwich Village, the site of Ray’s very hip walk-up on Houston Street (“that’s pronounced ‘house-ton’ street, NOT like the city in Texas!”, the realtor chided him in what seemed like another lifetime). His place overlooked the wide expanse of West Houston. He could walk to the Film Forum, to the Jazz spots, the galleries. It was an artist’s playground, Ray had told his friends as he packed up and moved out of northern New Jersey, never to return again.
“Jersey” is how New Yorkers refer to the Garden State, so this is how Ray now referred to his old hometown, where his parents and sister Katie still lived. And of course Candi, but he tried not to think back to her too often. Not going back, not ever going back.
That Ray earned his living as a telemarketer in mid-town was beside the point. He was a WRITER to anyone who’d listen long enough for Ray to tell. He is doing what millions of other people in the arts had done before him. He lives in the Village, and is working on a powerful drama that seasoned playwrights tell him seems to have great, great promise. In the meantime, he regularly recites at poetry readings, writes columns for three different blogs and has already had eight poems, six articles, four reviews, two editorials and one deep interview published in notable print media. ‘Print media’ is the designation, of course, for actual, tangible magazines or newspapers. With diminishing readership, it was getting harder and harder to get pieces into print—this remains the author’s Holy Grail, I guess, but the experts keep telling us that no one buys magazines anymore.
Ray thought of how cool it must have been back when writers easily published articles, poems, fiction, reviews, reportage, observations, witty quips and helpful handy hints to any number of magazines that everyone read. Cover to cover. He thought of his heroes, the Algonquin Roundtable regulars such as Parker and Adams and Stewart and the radical poets like Hughes and Giovannitti and Brecht, rabble-rousing with radical writings (there goes that uncontrollable tendency toward verse!). He thought of the artful journalists Gold and Reed, Mailer and Vidal, and especially the powerhouse playwrights like O’Neill and Hansberry and Odets and Hellman. They could write about strikes and police riots as easily as construct an introspective three-act play, a satirical tale or a dime-store novel about a poor family in the Bronx. There was room to grow and become outspoken. And there were readers, readers, readers.
“Damn it, where is this sonofabitching bus?”, he angrily thought just as the large blue and white vehicle came to a wheezing air-braked stop right in front of him, M-6 glowing along the top and with a large ad for a women’s clothing shop, displaying the beaming face of a giant, fashionable model (kinda like Allison Hayes in ‘Attack of the 50-foot Woman’, he thought). The bus’ door opened—ker-rrrap---and Ray clumped up the stairs, pausing for a moment to fish for his Metro Card (whatever did happen to the old MTA tokens?). The driver stared straight ahead, looking transfixed at the dimming sea of traffic in his purview. Ah, Manhattan in autumn.
Taking a seat a few rows back, Ray glanced over the rest of the bus. Passengers looked down at their feet or gazed strategically at the air in front of them. Some noisily crunched their copies of the Times as they skimmed from one page to the next. What a choreographed process: (1) open—(2) flip—(3) fold page back---(4) fold whole paper vertically in half. Reading the New York Times involves a deft handling of the broadsheet it’s printed upon. Ray used to practice this technique carefully, back when he first arrived in the City, but happily gave it up once he’d mastered this familiar “Times subway fold”. He’s too busy writing now to do as much newspaper reading as he used to.
Ray unbuttoned his black waist-coat and then reached into the leather shoulder bag, the one he carried everywhere. It contained several large writing tablets, a couple of small pads for jotting down thoughts and overheard bits of conversation, an updated resume, a supply of pens and pencils, aspirin, ulcer meds, sinus pills, eye drops, a package of tissues, a bottle of water and gum. Everything he needed to deal with the world. Tucked into a side pocket was a well-worn collection of 20th century poems, just to be near something intelligent in such settings.
Sixth Avenue rolled on. As the blocks dodged past him, Ray thought about New York, his town. He looked over the rest of the Village, the streets of which overflowed with crowds at any hour. Going north through this place, even the bagel store and pizzeria were special. The Village with all of its lure, all of its promise. The nearby White Horse Tavern, Cherry Lane Theatre and God, the clubs!---some, like the Bitter End and Village Vanguard have been here forever. This was the artistic mecca, though it is true that most artists began to migrate away over the years, as costs here became too prohibitive. First to SoHo, then Chelsea, then the East Village, places which had been inexpensive and industrial before the artists came along. And then THOSE places priced them out. Ray was lucky, perhaps one of the last of his kind. His Uncle Mario had been living in the apartment for years and years, after Grandma had moved out and into a safe suburban setting---out of the City. But anyhow, Uncle Mario became ill and needed to leave, but he refused to give up the apartment (the only New York hold-out, probably the only inspiration for Ray as a kid). When he asked Ray if he’d be willing to take over the lease—the rent-controlled lease—Ray thought he’d died and gone to heaven (“we’ll just tell ‘em that you always been livin’ there”, Uncle Mario said four years ago, “this way I can always go back”; both Ray and Uncle Mario knew that he was never going back). As Uncle Mario sat in a New Jersey nursing home Ray worried about the old man. And he also worried deeply about what will happen if he should pass on. The lease is in his name. “Shit, I don’t want to think about this now”, he sighed.
Looking up, Ray watched the avenue surround the bus as the buildings around it got bigger, closer together. They drove through Chelsea and then into the Herald Square area. The lights became brighter as dusk blanketed the fall sky. 34th Street is classic old world New York, isn’t it, even if it’s just one huge commercial district. Ray loved the old wooden elevators at Macy’s. He recalled a time when he and Candi used to take day trips into Manhattan. She loved Macy’s, especially at Christmas time.
Then onto 42nd Street. A busy cross-section of humanity alive with the throbbing pulse of –it seemed---everyone at the same time. The Times Square area may have become soft-core, it may be more of a family place and a tourist trap since the Giuliani years swept out much of the character along with the hookers and crack, but it‘s still the place where it all happens. You never make the light at 42nd; it’s always red when you get there, but it gives you the chance to look over this hallowed ground. To stand over the fray and watch it all bubble and burst. Writers love to sit back and watch life happen. As he looked nervously at his wrist watch (a gift as he graduated from Rutger’s), seeing the minutes taunt him, he realized he was already late for his miserable job. “Christ, now I have to get called on the carpet by Phil again. That bastard is just looking to get rid of me”, Ray thought before scribbling down a new story idea on his open tablet, maybe something for the New Yorker. Who knows? He became ever so briefly enraptured within this moment. Move away from it all. Move away.
The bus began to lurch forward and Ray looked up again as they careened past the noisey intersection and into the Theatre District. It may be glitz, but it’s still the heart of the entire genre. And, in revivals, you can still catch gems like “Death of a Salesman”. Broadway. The Great White Way. Theatre Row. Had Ray been born 60 or 75 years before, he may have been the next O’Neill or Miller. He stared at the air in front of him now.
As the bus approached 48th Street, he numbly rang the bell and the driver pulled into the bus stop. The door opened and Ray looked out but he remained immobile. Redline Telemarketing beckoned him.
He’d written the script and now he had to be ready to say his lines to the last row.
The alarm on the old wind-up clock went off like a gun-shot, harshly penetrating the thick air in the closed, heavily-draped room. Fisher leapt up with a jolt, grabbed the rounded metallic alarm bell and quickly switched it off. He considered tossing it across the room, but instead just placed it carefully, rigidly, back into its place on his night-table. “Goddamned thing” he said, rubbing his half-closed eyes with both palms. He hated its sound, heralding another night of work. He groaned as he stiffly stood, stretching his back. It was 10PM, same time he always got up to go to his work on the midnight shift. Trying to sleep all day long while the rest of the world is up and about is hard enough. Even after this many years, Fisher continued to find it hard to live life in reverse.
He stumbled through the dark hall and found his way into the bathroom. He flicked the light on, wincing at the invasive brightness. Caught looking into the mirror, he carefully studied his face: the strong, handsome features remained but the story told in his worn eyes offered insight into the decades. His hair was more salt than pepper and even his 5 o’clock shadow had a dusty, gray look to it. Fisher stood motionless and then averted his gaze. “Sometimes I just think too much”, he said, shaking the rising tension out of his head.
After a shower and shave, Fisher felt alert, more like himself. He put on his clean, pressed white shirt, gray uniform pants and clip-on tie (“Hey, these are the kind that undertakers put on bodies!”, his co-worker Neumann laughingly told the crew). Fisher buffed his shoes to a gleaming black before stepping into them. “As my daddy told me long time ago, you got to be proud in whatever you do. I am the PROUDEST damned security guard Juno Protective Services ever had”, he offered in response to his gnawing intolerance. As he heated up a cup of instant coffee and put a frozen breakfast into the microwave, he gazed out of his window, the one which faced toward ‘the Cyclone’ and ‘Wonder Wheel’, both closed until next spring. “Coney Island, America’s playground”, he thought as he heard a police siren blaring off in the background. “Shit”. And he threw back a glass of orange juice.
Fisher put on his uniform jacket, fastening the brass-colored buttons, then his overcoat, scarf and hat and walked out of the front door. He lived on the first floor of a large, aging apartment building. His flat was the one with its own entrance. At least he could pretend it was a house, like the ones he’d lived in prior to coming to New York. Prior to leaving home in Barbados. As he emerged from the flat he remembered the warmth of the sun back home. Oh how he missed the sun.
Fisher locked the door, then bent down and picked up the copy of the Daily News the delivery boy had left for him early that day. As he walked to the train station, bracing against the damp chill of winter by the seashore, he thought about how ironic it was that by the time he reads today’s paper, it’s almost tomorrow. Nearly one day behind.
The Coney Island train station at Stillwell Avenue is expansive, with a phalanx of tunnels, staircases and entrances leading to an outdoor, elevated, confounded alphabet of subway lines: the B, the F, the M, the N, the R, chariots of the working class all. Below the station stands a sweet shop that has been around for well over half a century. Even at night, you can smell the sugary swath of fudge, cotton candy and homemade chocolates clinging to the foundation. Though at first Fisher found this intoxicating, by now the aroma was mildly sickening. Standing at the F-train platform, Fisher held his hands tightly in his pockets, experiencing the quiet cold. Out of season, on a wintry night, Coney Island is a solitary place. The amusement park stands silently, like a snap-shot in time with its carousel horses staring blankly; with locked down roller-coasters and shuttered crazy houses all looking back at you, almost mockingly. The party has been over for months, come back next summer…
Just then the roar of the 10:45 to Manhattan came barreling into the station, tearing into the night sky. The seats on the long-dormant Wonder Wheel rocked with a momentary excitement before once again falling into suspended animation. Fisher got onto the otherwise empty train, put his feet up onto the
plastic orange seat and read his paper. The trip into Manhattan is funny, he thought. You start off on an elevated platform at “the end of the line” and by the time the train gets into the heart of Brooklyn you are deep underground but no longer alone. It doesn’t matter that it’s around 10:30 on a winter night, this is New York, the city that refuses to sleep, cannot rest. People are going home after carousing, or after working an evening shift. Others, like Fisher, are leaving home and heading out. Everyone has someplace to go. Every train car is alive.
The neighborhoods fly by but one has no real perspective on this. The subway car windows only offer the total blackness of the hundred year-old tunnels when moving. It is only with each stop that you can see out. Fisher glanced up at Smith and Ninth Street, at the southbound train station across the way—tiled walls, “No Spitting” signs, and people leaning on pillars, waiting, ogling the dark tunnel, almost willing their train to finally get there.
Finally, the train flew into some space to breath--going up over the Manhattan Bridge breaks the claustrophobic trend for a few minutes. After staring out of the window, at the night skyline, Fisher is back to a hypnotic gaze at the floor, rumbling, as they bored back underground. The train gives off a repetitive, numbing pulse which pulls you in and leaves you bobbing limply against its drive. Fisher looks over at his fellow passengers and notes that each has the same emotionless look on their faces. “God, we look a hell of a lot like those comatose carousel horses, don’t we?”, he thought, suppressing a laugh.
He looked up as the train roared into West 34th Street. Even the station is a throbbing carnival of movement. People are all over the place, venders, shops, even a wide array of street performers busking for change. He strategically moved through it all and got to an exit. As he ascended the staircase the cold night air flew into his face and he pushed back against it as he walked out onto 6th Avenue. People milled about, cabs flew by, music blared out of night spots, shoppers moved rapidly up the avenue and the homeless invisibly walked among them. New York City is not a collection of people and things, but one massive, wriggling organism.
Fisher arrived at his destination, the huge S. Diamond office complex. As he entered the service entrance, its large metal door swung firmly behind him, sealing out the night. All of the movement seemed to come to a close, like the TV suddenly cutting out in the middle of an action film. His footsteps echoed in the empty cavern of the lobby, slicing the stillness. Fisher made his way to the Security office and punched in. Sal Buono, the night shift supervisor sat motionless behind his desk, the one that really just served as a podium for the small black-and-white television which seemed to take up all of his attention. His hands were clasped in front of him, wrapped around an engorged belly like a brutish Buddha. “Hey Fisha, yer on Vertical Patrol tonight, floors 40 to sub-basement, all stairwells. Kampbell called sick so ya gotta cover his floors, too”, he offered without once looking away from the infomercial featuring clips from ‘Girls Gone Wild’. Fisher nodded and went to the locker room to hang up his hat and coat, grabbed a radio and his security clock and headed out to work.
Arriving at Stairwell A, he looked over his shoulder at the sullen, barren lobby, shut out from the bustling night like an air-locked bank vault. Through a large window panel, he watched the silent action of the
streets and sighed, as he slipped the security clock’s strap over his head and across his chest. “Carrying around my Goddamned overseer”, Fisher thought, contemplating having to clock in at each stairwell over 42 floors of office space. With the imagery of shackles restraining his stride, Fisher slowly opened the stairwell door and looked inside at the endless labyrinth of steps encircling his view and making it harder and harder to inhale without effort.
The door swung to a thud behind him and he stood alone.
4) “Let’s Meet at Lowenfel’s!”
Dwarfed by the towering urban landscape about it, but still standing proud, is the Lowenfel Diner. Lowenfel’s has stood vigil on this corner staring down Broadway for over seventy years and it’ll probably stand there another seventy. Clair took her hand out of the pocket of her long, cloth coat and reached for the antique brass door handle; it was cold to the touch but in an invigorating way. She entered the small vestibule with its black and white tile floor, glowing deco torch lamp and old Bell phone booth. She breathed deeply, and then stepped inside the diner.
“Damn, glad to see you girl”, Essie called out to her. “We have had such a busy day—I’m just glad to be getting out of here. Now I have to go home and make dinner for my family…”, she said shaking her head and smiling. The arrhythmic metallic clanking of silverware and dishes in a bus-box resounded over Essie’s words and her voice faded into the background noise. The diner was alive and noisily shimmering. Essie excitedly handed Clair the cash register key and the list of specials which she’d been ringing up non-stop since noon. Clair smiled without really showing her teeth and muttered “Good night”. She hoped Essie did not think her unfriendly, it occurred to her, as she watched the woman disappear into the back room. She envisioned Essie happily exchanging her Lowenfel Diner vest for her cushy winter coat and then flying out of the back exit, done for the day.
Clair took her place behind the old register—yes it was the classic type with the long, thick buttons and the bell that resounded when the draw opened. It is exactly the kind you’d expect to find at the sentry point of such an old diner---the kind of diner that looks and feels like it came right out of a Hopper painting. The counter beneath the cash register had a glass case which featured gum and mints. It still had the built-in rack which used to hold cigarettes but now decoratively displayed an old menu from when Zach and Gerta Lowenfel first opened the place. “Meet Me at Lowenfel’s!” written in fancy red lettering across the top and a yellowed photo of a steaming meal being presented by a fat, smiling, mustachioed chef clarified the vintage of the menu. Like the diner itself, this menu recalled the 1930s with a warm fondness that people living back in those Depression days would never have believed. With far enough distance, anything could seem brighter, Clair thought.
Solly, the evening manager walked over to Clair, wiping his hands on the towel he often wore over his right shoulder, looking all the more like a boxing coach in his white shirt and black vest.
“Hey, Night Shift! How in the hell are ya?!”, he asked with a loud grin that revealed the all-too-white dentures within. Clair sometimes laughed to herself at Solly’s problems with the loosening grip he had on his choppers, probably due to the steady stream of black coffee he consumed during his 12+ hour shift. A sneezing fit was an especially cruel display as Solly’s finger would be jammed against the front teeth, trying desperately to steady the plate.
“Oh, I am doing well, Solly”, Clair said almost shyly. She’d worked with him each evening from 7PM till close (usually around 2AM, depending upon traffic) for the past eleven years. While Solly was pleasant, he could be a little overbearing. Like the pushy uncle who insists on running the barbecue.
“Listen”, he said without really waiting for an answer. “I have to tell ya that we’re not only out of the Beef Stroganoff but we’re gonna have to scratch the Pot Roast off of the Specials list, too. I guess we didn’t order enough; you know how it goes. Now I’m never gonna hear the end of it from Bobby”, he said referring to Bob Lowenfel, the 47 year-old owner whom Solly insisted on calling ‘Bobby’ as he did when Bob was a boy. Close observers noted the diminishing patience Bob had for Solly, but his long-term friendship with Zach kept his position secure enough.
“That sonofabitchin’ kid is always lookin’ for a problem”, he said with a sobering look temporarily overcoming his fixed smile. Solly looked downward, suddenly looking his 68 years, and then almost instantaneously moved back into his usual role—the manicky neighbor who comes out to watch while you try to fix your car. “Ah, whatever”, he laughed. “The movie’ll be lettin’ out at 8:00---we can expect another good crowd to show up. I love Wednesdays: always a good movie crowd”, he said with his mouth pushed into an almost painful grin.
Clair watched Solly as he walked through the diner, pausing to kibitz with the couple in booth 12. They always ordered the tuna salad on rye toast, rice in place of the fries, hold the pickles. She could overhear intermittent laughter but was at too much of a distance to catch the jokes and humorous nothings
She sat on the cashier’s stool—the kind with thick chrome legs, sparkle-red cushion and stiff black back rest—and looked up at the television hanging on the wall over the counter. MSNBC. Olbermann will be on soon. Her fixed stare on the screen turned into a blur, broken only by Solly’s sudden appearance in her view.
“Night Shift, where are you really?”, he asked in an almost paternal tone. Before Clair could focus he quickly added, “I’m gonna step out for a cigarette; if you need me, I’ll be out front”, then he was out the door. Clair watched him carefully through the long glass panes facing out at the corner of 39th Street. Solly lit his Parliament (the pack was always in his left shirt pocket, a seemingly undiminishing supply of nicotine to go with all of the coffee he drank every night). As a smoker Solly would fit into the near-professional range: lighting up in the early winter wind with one hand acting as both torch-bearer and protector of the quivering, fragile flame.
Solly inhaled that first drag deeply, puffing the smoke out through his nose like an aging, bald dragon. He watched it dissipate into the already dark air that surrounded him, the silvery mist becoming one with the night. He thrust his head back, almost leaning it on the cool window. He looked down Broadway, watching the south-bound traffic clog the winding strip that bordered both the theatre district and tourist traps, though, he considered, with these prices they’ve really become one and the same. Who the hell could afford to take a family out anymore?
While the wintry air sat at 37 degrees, Solly’s forehead continued to brandish sweat-beads which he wiped with the towel that remained on his shoulder, never really off-duty. Two more deep drags and then he flipped the butt into the street watching the glowing redness break off from the rest and then evaporate into the dark. Solly remained out front a little while longer, thinking about his wife Elizabeth, about Barry and Sara, his adult children, and his three grand-kids, quickly growing up. Time goes by so quickly. Where did it all go? “Well at least my kids could be proud that their Dad ran the best diner in New York” he said aloud only to himself before walking over to the newsstand, just off the corner. Looking over at the newsman with arms extended he exclaimed, “Hey Rikki---how in the hell are ya?!”
Clair re-stacked the menus evenly after having changed the Specials page in each one, carefully striking the Stroganoff and Pot Roast to avoid problems when the movie crowd gets in.
“Hellloooooooooo, Clair”, a soft-toned voice sang out from behind her. Clair smirked as she looked over her shoulder, welcoming the long, lanky waiter tangoing over toward her. “Hi Michael—I didn’t know you were on tonight!”.
Rolling his eyes ceremoniously upward Michael offered, “Yeah, me neither. Solly called me up at 3 o’clock—the nerve on that man—and said that Kris had to leave early”. He sucked his teeth and looked out at Solly (still going on just outside the diner) with a dagger-filled gaze.
“I’ll tell you that one is sure cutting into my social life. I had to call up Javier and cancel our special dinner---and desert”, he added, jutting his chin forward and fluttering his eyelashes with lampooned sexual hyperbole. Michael was a character. He could usually be found strutting about Lowenfel’s in his exaggerated fashion--very much the actor who waited tables to get by, but then stayed--entertaining customers with raunchy jokes and imitations. People often requested his station, especially on movie nights, to discuss the latest films with him, peppered with gossip about the celebs that frequented the diner. But then there was another Michael, hidden way beneath all of the cliché dry wit.
“Michael, I am sorry that your evening with Javier was ruined”, Clair said carefully. He smiled back gently, almost sheepishly for a moment, and looked into her eyes without a hint of irony. There’d been a stream of bad relationships in Michael’s life, just as there had been for Clair. Sometimes when the diner got very quiet they’d commiserate together. After they were done with all of the ‘men—can’t live with them, can’t live without them’ talk, they’d both end up retreating to their corners…alone. Clair looked into her friend’s face and thought about how often Michael felt lonesome, but doing everything he could to bury those feelings. In this way, too, he reminded Clair of herself---it occurred to her that she worried about him so that she could avoid her own trials, her own tribulations. She reached out for his hand.
He quickly interjected, “Hey what do you say, after work let’s stop off at ‘The Front’ and throw back a couple?, referring to their favorite late-night spot in Hell’s Kitchen. It was within walking distance of his studio and her subway back to Bergen Street.
“It’s a date, Clair responded, really more to appease Michael whom she knew had worked hard to try to make things last with Javier. Clair had long since given up on Prince Charming but Michael thought he saw his face in every handsome customer who came into Lowenfel’s or every new guy who turned up at his improv class.
Just then the juke box began to blare out a Latinesque dance number and Michael was heading back to his station with an off-kilter rumba step, calling out to the people at his tables in a sing-song voice. The couple sitting in booth 19 accompanied his moves by tapping out a make-believe mambo on their glasses with spoons and table 10 clapped along. Michael was back in his zone.
Clair’s mind drifted as she stared numbly out of the front window, barely noticing Solly, still holding court. Her eyes blurred as the strange prismic configurations of light frantically bounced across the mirrored panels of the Lowenfel Diner.
And the burgeoning traffic claimed Broadway.
--originally published in Political Affairs, 2009--