Five minutes after I came behind the bar for the night shift, Chuck, the day guy, came out of the manager’s office, his face as white and drawn as a terminal patient’s. Given his normal barroom pallor, he was a ghastly sight.
“Spotter’s report,” he whispered.
“Shit!” I felt the arrival of doom. “When?” “Two weeks ago Thursday.”
Trying to remember two weeks ago Thursday was like trying to recall my childhood. I couldn’t remember one Thursday from another—or from a Tuesday for that matter.
“We all came back from the country,” Chuck said.
That was it. I didn’t have to wait for the manager’s call. I now remembered. The whole day crew came in to visit near closing. I’d practically given the joint away.
“Mr. McNulty.” Alphonse, the manager, addressed me with all due solemnity. He sat at his inner sanctum desk next to the liquor storage room. We both knew he was chortling and cheering behind his pompous veneer. “I want to read to you from this report.” So he did. As soon as it began I remembered the weasel spotter, short, a round head, brown hair combed across a bald dome, glasses, a wimp’s smile.
Alphonse read: “I ordered a double martini. The bartender, nametag Brian, poured it, took my ten dollar bill, registered three dollars on the cash register, and returned me four dollars.”
Alphonse looked up. I waited for the rest. The general manager of the hotel half-sat half-leaned, against the front of the desk watching intently; the head of hotel security stood like a palace guard beside the desk. I braced myself.
“Under the circumstances,” Alphonse began again, becoming almost majestic in his solemnity, “I have no choice but to request your resignation.”
I wanted to stall for time. I wanted some kind of opening into the report. Actually, I didn’t know what to do. “Would you read me the rest of the report?” I asked him in an anemic tone of voice.
He looked confused. “There is no more.” “That’s it? … That’s Thursday night?” He nodded.
“That’s all that’s in the report for Thursday night?” He nodded again.
I believed God had intervened.
“What the hell kind of spotter’s report is that?” “Enough for us to terminate you,” the general manager said.
“For what?” “For stealing.”
“Where’s it say I stole?”
“C’mon, McNulty. We weren’t born yesterday,” Alphonse shouted, his solemnity, along with his faintly European accent, bowled over for the moment by his Bensonhurst roots.
“The spotter was. Don’t they give those guys eye tests?”
The entire management crew sputtered at me. I was the union steward; they hated me. The business agent from the local used to come for lunch once every couple of months until I started making him enforce the contract. No one likes a troublemaker, not even me. But I can’t help it. My father was a Communist, one of the founders of the Newspaper Guild. His quixotic sense of the workers’ rights and the boss’s injustice rubbed off on me. It’s my curse, one of the reasons why this—itself about to become history—was my twenty-fourth bartending gig.
They did fire me, and I did file a grievance. The union said they would find me another job and to forget about the grievance. Since I wouldn’t forget it, they wouldn’t find me a job. That was how I ended up at Oscar’s on Broadway in my own neighborhood, a couple of blocks from my apartment, at 108th Street.
There, on a smoky, drunken Saturday night, I met Angelina. She came through the smoke, up to the bar, like one of those sleek and beautiful mahogany sailboats that slip soundlessly out of the fog and the early morning mist to dock at the Dockside Hotel down on the Jersey Shore—where I once tended bar in an earlier life. The four A.M. drunks were piled against the bar now that last call had sounded; no matter how many hours before that they’d spent staring silently into their glasses, now they talked, urgently, clinging to the night, fighting off tomorrow. When I leaned toward her for her order, Angelina put her hand on mine to make sure she had my attention. Tired, half-drunk myself, I wanted to brush her prettiness away, like I brushed away the other pretty brats: the waitresses-as-actresses, the business-suited innocents from Cincinnati or Iowa. I was sick of innocence and expectation. I’d been to my own four or five hundred casting calls.
That’s another of my curses, thinking I’m an actor. The worst one, though, is this ability I have to watch myself when I’m pretending to something I don’t really feel. That comes from my father, too. He couldn’t pretend either that Hungarian workers were Trotskyists and CIA agents or that the Warsaw Pact troops’ entry into Czechoslovakia constituted comradely intervention. That didn’t keep him from being a Communist; it just kept him from getting any promotions or being honored at get-togethers for long-time, loyal comrades. This night, I watched myself pretend that this girl didn’t bloom in front of me like the last rose of summer and that I wasn’t captivated by her blue eyes. She was of that charmed and pretty school of women that men fall all over, obviously used to getting everything she wanted from men with a couple of pouts and a smile. I could fill a warehouse with pretty smiles and innocent eyes.
Pretty wasn’t enough. Another link in the anchor chain from my father. “Don’t homely people have a right to live too?” asked Pop. “Don’t they care about attention? You’re no Clark Gable yourself. Why does a girl have to be pretty? What about her heart?” One more example of that unfashionable wisdom that had made him a pariah for most of my childhood. I wanted to show this winsome waif that flirtatious smiles and innocent eyes didn’t mean shit in Oscar’s on Broadway at four in the morning.
“What?” I asked with no more courtesy than I’d show a truck driver from the Bronx.
“I want to tell you a joke,” she said, her eyes flashing like a mischievous child’s.
“This little girl wanted to know what her father’s dick was, so he told her it was his dolly.” Angelina sipped her rum and coke, her eyes already laughing, her voice growing drunkenly raucous. “The next morning the mother found the father rolling around screaming in pain, holding his penis. ‘What happened?’ the mother shouted at the little girl. ‘I was playing with daddy’s dolly while he was asleep, and it spit at me, so I wrung its neck.’” Angelina laughed uproariously at her joke. I went back to work.
In a few minutes, she ordered another drink, her long eyelashes fluttering over her pretty blue eyes. Locked into those eyes when I went to give her the drink, I clipped the bar with the bottom of the glass and dumped about half of it on the bar in front of her.
Batting her eyes, she watched me sop up the drink with a bar towel. “Did you spill that because you were looking at me?” she asked gleefully.
We had a drink at the bar after I closed up, then went to an after-hours joint, called the Flaming Star, and stayed until the sun came up. The Flaming Star was a warehouse on 79th Street with a dance floor as big as a tennis court, throbbing disco music, and oases of chairs and tables set about. Truly egalitarian in the worst sense of the word—the joint corrupted everyone without regard to race, creed, sex, or economic status—class, my father would say. Blacks, whites, Latins, we’d all sunk to the same level, bartenders and waitresses after work, drug dealers still at work, gamblers, musicians, assorted weirdos, all of us united in our pursuit of degeneracy. Not the place to take a nice girl on the first date.
Angelina loved the place.
“What do all these people do?” she asked. The clientele sparkled and glistened, men in everything from electric blue suits to buckskin and cowboy hats, women in waitress clothes or glittering party dresses, most of them sleek and slim and vacant eyed. At times, coked up at the Flaming Star, I’d thought I was in a roomful of mannequins.
“Nothing useful,” I told her.
“But everyone’s so glamorous.” She envisioned movie stars and rock musicians.
“No,” she said. “You’re grouchy and eccentric. But that’s a really great way to be, too.”
“What’s not a great way to be?” “A teenage girl in Springfield.”
Back in the neighborhood at dawn, we walked in a secluded section of Riverside Park, down on the far side of the West Side Highway next to the river. Then, when the morning was pretty well light, we sat on the steps of Low Library, on the very top step, looking down over College Walk.
“This is very inspiring,” Angelina said. “It’s like visiting a castle.”
The solemn, scholarly Ionic columns of Butler Library, the peace of the morning, Columbia inspired me, too. I spent many mornings sitting on the steps, trying to shore up my belief—the only one I had—in knowledge. Years before, I’d started off at Columbia College, a scholarship student, a son of the working class, on my way to a law degree to enable me to defend the oppressed, back when my father believed I would amount to something. But I’d spent much more time in the West End bar than Butler Library, and I didn’t amount to much at all.
Maybe those memories haunted the Low Library steps. Maybe my belief in knowledge was that I too would know something someday—like why I’d spent my life in bars. “Dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music…the only kind of life you’ll ever understand.”
“Why are you sitting here with a man twice your age?” I asked Angelina when I’d finished my reverie. This was at least something I could know.
“You’re a father image.” Her face brightened into a smile. “Why are you sitting here with a girl half your age?”
I didn’t know after all.
“I’m good for your ego,” she said. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to be my friend.” “Do you want to sleep with me?”
“I don’t know.” The night had taken its toll on her, young as she was; she yawned and smiled weakly; her body lost its vibrancy, like the wind gone out of the sails. Nearer exhaustion, you get closer to the truth.
My apartment wasn’t far away and we didn’t talk on the way there. I wanted to hug myself to sleep with Angelina. I was as foolish as I ever thought I might be, like an old dog trying to cavort with a puppy. I had to watch myself pretend on the walk home that I held onto some sort of dignity— that I didn’t have a crush on her, that I wasn’t as stupidly innocent and romantic as I pretended she was.
When she was in my arms in my bed, I asked her if she was sure she wanted to do this.
“I knew you’d do that,” she said. “What?”
“Want to talk about it.” “Is that bad?”
“No, it’s good.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“No,” she said. Her voice was small, as the rest of her seemed much smaller now, her thin white shoulders, her pale and graceful neck, her tiny-nippled breasts that flattened out against her chest when she lay down.
“How will you feel when we wake up?”
“Probably terrible.” Her face was beautiful against the pillow, her eyelids closing toward sleep; her face even more beautiful in this repose just before sleep than it had been through the night. “It’s not that I don’t find you attractive or don’t want to make love with you. I feel like something terrible will happen if I do.”
She slept, then, chastely, beside me.
Sometime after noon, when we awoke, I regained whatever it is that passes for my composure. I told Angelina she was a sweet kid, but I didn’t think we would do each other much good. She nodded solemnly.
“Were you going to fall in love with me?” she asked. Her pretty blue eyes sparkled; her expression was eager and alert, the pink freshness returned to her cheeks.
“I don’t know. Do you want me to?” “Maybe.” She lowered her eyelids demurely.
In spite of myself, I was cheered by her reply. But a man of forty can’t fall in love with a twenty-year-old. He already knows what little flirts they are and how fickle, and how silly it is to try to hold on to such a girl. “I’m not going to fall in love with you,” I said in a tone of voice she would believe. I believed it.
“I knew you’d say that too,” she said matter-of-factly. The picture of her face against my pillow stayed with me— something in the way she looked at me, as if she knew things about me I didn’t know myself.
I stumbled around for a few days mooning over her, kicking myself for passing up the opportunity to screw her when I had the chance. I blamed it on my upbringing. “Intimacy should at least be honest,” said Pop. “The bedroom is not a used car lot.” He must have drilled this sort of wisdom into my head while I slept because I tried not to pay any attention while I was awake.
Not a week passed before she turned up again, just before closing time, coming in out of the pouring rain, standing in the doorway shaking the water out of her hair like a wet mutt. I wondered where she’d been, whom she’d been with, but I didn’t ask.
“What a pisser walking up here,” she said. “It really sucks out.” Then she smiled her wayward angel’s smile.
She needed a place to stay for the night because she’d been locked out of her apartment. “I knew I could come to you,” she said, between sips of her rum and Coke in the semi-darkness after I’d closed the bar. What did she know: that I didn’t have anything else to do with my life but look after her?
She was locked out of her apartment because an irate suitor had kicked down the door. The villain was the cab driver who’d driven her from Port Authority to the Upper West Side and helped her find the address of her apartment house her first night in New York. He was Armenian or Lebanese. She wasn’t sure. They’d gone on two dates in his taxi, and he had fallen in love with her. The super wanted no part of her after the maniac cab driver’s visit and padlocked her apartment. She also lost her waitressing job because her uniform was locked in her room.
We ate breakfast in the greasy spoon at 106th and went to my apartment. She wanted no part of romance. Very tired, she nodded off to sleep on my couch, and whatever amorous intentions I had were doused by her sleepiness. “I’m too confused,” she said before she slept.
I sat for a long time in my old stuffed easy chair sipping scotch, watching the remnants of a late-night Peter Lorre movie, remembering women I’d known, every few seconds turning to look at Angelina’s face as she slept.
In the morning, she cried softly over coffee at my cluttered kitchen table, then threw herself on the couch again. “I give up,” she said. “I’m staying right here. I’m your responsibility.” That afternoon we went to the Marlin Cafe, an old neighborhood bar, lately taken over in the evening by Columbia students in some subdued version of bohemianism. In the daylight, it was still a place for old men to stare into their seven ounce beer glasses. We talked for a long time; mostly she talked and I listened. She told me she was molested when she was ten and her mother never forgave her.
“‘That’s what ruined you,’ my mother told me all my life,” Angelina said. It sounded as though she believed it, too.
She was raped again when she was twelve by a friend of her mother’s—though this one she had never told anyone about—and began running away from home and having sex with men when she was thirteen. She moved in with a thirty- two-year-old sculptor when she was fifteen, about the time she became a nude model.
“My mother disapproves of sleeping around almost as much as I do,” she said, waving those eyelashes and smiling shyly, just after she told me the number of men she’d slept with was in the hundreds and she’d never had an orgasm. “It’s so mechanical. It gets to be like shaking hands—undress, put in my diaphragm, and screw.”
Angelina stayed at my apartment for a couple of weeks watching I Love Lucy reruns and reading fashion magazines. At night, she hung around Oscar’s making friends with the regulars. She did this methodically, I realized later, checking out each man who entered the bar as if she were looking for someone.
“I think it’s really nice that we’re friends and not lovers,” she said when we talked about it.
“Me, too. Getting laid is bad for you at my age.”
“It would ruin everything if we were lovers.” Her voice wavered, and she looked helplessly into my eyes. I knew she would go to bed with me if I really wanted that. For whatever reason, gratitude, habit, need, she would do it. But I shared her foreboding: I knew something terrible would happen if she did.
The regulars at Oscar’s adored Angelina. She flirted with everyone, moseying from one barstool to the next, lapping up the barflies’ attentions and enjoying the jealousy she created. Everyone had a crush on Angelina, and she made each of the winos feel in turn that she had a crush on him. Maybe she did.
Angelina found something to like and admire in everyone. This generosity toward her fellow suffering humanity went over extremely well with the winos, most of whom had run out of things to like about themselves years before.
Sometimes, Angelina had dates she met at the bar, and some nights she didn’t come in at all. Usually, when she met a guy, she’d stay out all night, not returning to my apartment until the next day. On those days after, she was withdrawn, staring at the TV, not talking, depressed, and getting on my nerves. I hated the sound of the television.
Sometimes, her dates kept her away from the bar for a week or so, but sooner or later she’d come back for a night with the regulars. Back with a couple of new lousy jokes that everyone would laugh at. Whenever I looked up, someone’s arm circling her bony shoulder, she was raucously laughing her way through the joke. The joke that was always vulgar— about balls or tits or vaginas—and never really funny.
Oscar’s really became a bar late at night after the dinner crowd thinned out. Around ten-thirty, the rock and roll band set up, and the respectable people went home. Then the winos filtered in one at a time. They weren’t really winos unless they drank alone. Beware the solitary drinker, the old-time bartenders had told me years before. Now, here they were, all of them—solitary drinkers.
A few of the regulars were in their twenties or thirties, but most were older, some in their sixties. Pretty much everyone had traveled many roads and had many stories to tell. As long as they told them to each other, I didn’t mind.
My stock had gone up considerably because Angelina came to see me. And I have to admit my night brightened considerably each time I saw her. But Oscar’s of the Upper West Side was a bar any number of women came into on their own. The women who frequented the place liked me well enough. Most women like the bartenders of the joints they drink in. But most of them didn’t like Angelina. This was mostly because the men were so taken with her, and she didn’t have any scruples about going to bed with men—except me. I put up with the dirty looks and snide remarks from the other women and with Angelina’s outrageous act, despite my certain knowledge that her flirting and carelessness would lead to trouble, because I couldn’t help wanting to have her around. As she was for the stumblebums, she was the excitement in my life. But there was more. I knew, without knowing it, that beneath the flamboyance, the craving for attention, the lewdness, and the recklessness, Angelina was as gentle as anyone I’d ever known, except maybe my mother.
Not surprisingly, Angelina’s sashaying from one barfly to the next caused a good deal of jealousy, and the jealousy caused more than a few shoving matches, do-si-dos, and step-outsides. The closest we got to a fistfight was when Nigel Barthelme, one of the smitten regulars, felt called upon to defend her honor against the barbs of a certain Reuben Foster, another regular. Fed up with her antics one evening, Reuben called Angelina a slut and a prick-teasing little twat. Angelina took umbrage.
“I can’t believe the assholes in this place,” she said.
“It’s three in the morning,” I reminded her. “You’re in Oscar’s on Broadway. Who’d you expect, Prince Charming?” Nigel stepped in, though. Maybe he thought he was Prince Charming. Reuben knocked him on his ass. Duffy, the doorman, grabbed Reuben while I picked up Nigel. Reuben, well into his fifties, hadn’t lost his upper body strength; his torso was the size of a fifty-five-gallon drum.
“Nigel,” I said as he squirmed to get back to the fight, “if you don’t stop, I’m going to whack you.” Something had snapped in him: he couldn’t stop if he wanted; his face was twisted with hatred beyond rage. He actually scared me, but I was inside his arms so he couldn’t hit me, and since I was bigger and heavier, he couldn’t get me out of the way. I talked to him, my face inches away from his contorted mouth and his foul, labored breathing, trying to talk reason, and looking into his eyes that, like a blind man’s, didn’t look back.
“She’s not a slut,” Nigel screamed—a point I didn’t think even Angelina would argue too strenuously.
“They’re all sluts,” said Reuben. He wasn’t angry and he didn’t show drunk, despite a half-dozen undiluted rums. On a good night, he was steady on his feet after a dozen.
“Reuben!” I bellowed, while I crushed the squirming Nigel against the partition wall, “Take a walk or I’ll bar you from here, too.” Reuben had to consider this threat since he’d already been barred from a couple of the other bars on our part of Broadway and was running out of places to drink.
He also liked me. “C’mon, Reuben,” I said more softly, “do me a favor, take a walk for a half-hour.” Grumbling about twats and sluts, he picked up his money from the bar, leaving a couple of bucks for me, and walked out. Reuben was a tough guy, and I liked having him around the bar; two or three times he’d helped me drag someone out, and once he’d pulled a drunk off-duty cop off my throat. His problem was that he hated women.
After four marriages, he hadn’t learned; he’d still engage any woman, particularly a young woman, who happened into Oscar’s. An aging hipster, who’d drunk in the West End with Ginsberg and Kerouac, he was a light-skinned black from an old New England family who had graduated from Oberlin College and still read novels and philosophy. He was one of the folks who made life a bit interesting at Oscar’s. The college girls from Barnard and Columbia who wandered in now and again found him eccentric and charming. So did Angelina. She probably spent more time with him than with most of the other regulars, leaving him panting after her most nights there at the bar, still in fond pursuit of his biggest problem. Nigel’s brain returned to the fold a few minutes after Reuben left. I let go of him, Angelina took over comforting him, and I went back behind the bar.
Nigel Barthelme was another of Angelina’s conquests. He was already part of the scene when I began working at Oscar’s, having established himself as a kind of gofer. If I needed something from the liquor store to tide me over until Oscar paid the liquor distributor’s bill, or the chef, Eric the Red, needed some hamburger meat from the market at 110th Street, Nigel would trot off to get it. Whenever something broke, Nigel ran to his apartment for his tool kit and came back and fixed it. But he wasn’t your typical gofer. He had a good job doing something with computers in the financial district. Nor was he your typical barfly, as most of the time he drank ginger ale. He’d never really be an Oscar’s regular since he considered his day job more important than his drinking.
Yet the four walls closed in on him late at night, too, like they did the rest of us. He was a night owl, and if you wanted to go out late at night on the Upper West Side, your choices were limited in 1983. Oscar befriended Nigel, word had it, because Oscar believed him to be descended from a wealthy family—and there was nothing that impressed Oscar more than wealth.
Angelina snatched poor Nigel up the first time she saw him come in the door. When he spied her that first night, he stood in the doorway gawking like he’d just fallen off the turnip truck. She looked up from her drink once, then looked up again. In no time at all, he was sitting beside her. This night, she was at first her cheerful self, then later much more serious than I was used to seeing her. Just before closing, she looped her arm about Nigel’s shoulder and leaned heavily against him as they rolled out of the bar into the Broadway night. He seemed so taken with her, and she acted so differently with him than with her other conquests, that I thought she might have found something with Nigel. But he was back in the bar a couple of nights later nervously looking for her, and she was nowhere to be found. He looked for her every night for a week, asking me with fake casualness if I’d seen her.
I had seen her in actual fact because when she needed to be alone and get some sleep, she came back to my apartment, usually during the day, and curled up on the couch. But I didn’t see any reason to tell Nigel this. His pining around the bar at night was bad enough; I didn’t want him on my doorstep during the day also.
The time came, though, not long after this, that Angelina stayed away from the bar for quite a while and even stopped showing up at my apartment. I worried but then heard tell she’d been making the rounds farther downtown. When she finally did come back to Oscar’s, she was in the chips. She bought the regulars drinks, tipped me five bucks when she bought a round, and tuned me up every half-hour from her packet of blow. She’d found a job at Hanrahan’s on 65th Street, she told me, and I figured it must be a gold mine. She said she’d found herself a sugar daddy, so she would be my sugar momma.
That night, she left with Duffy the doorman. Her leaving cast a pall over the bar; the laughter and the good times gave way to steady, solitary, hard drinking, the kind usually disguised by the good time. We all shared an unspoken belief that she was throwing herself away on Duffy, but I doubt any of the rest of us planned to build her a house in the country. Even Nigel drank that night. So did I. Losing Angelina was one more failure added to a long string, so each of us, mired in the remembrance of a lifetime of losses, settled in to feel sorry for himself.
Nigel turned out to be an awful drunk, belligerent, foul-mouthed, contemptuous, and nasty to everyone. I finally threw him out around three. The next day, he was back, sheepish, contrite, diffident, wearing dark glasses instead of his coke bottles, his face even whiter than usual.
“You see now why I don’t drink often,” he said.
“You’re one of the worst drunks I’ve ever seen,” I assured him. “Maybe you should try drugs.”
“I’m worse,” Nigel said.
From then on, when Angelina did return, she and Nigel might talk or they might not, but I could tell the flame had gone out. Nigel pined after her, and she toyed with him. Still, he took it like a man, hanging on, being her friend, waiting for the day she’d come to her senses and realize he was the one for her.
During this time, too, Nigel and I took to hanging out together. Since he was often around at closing time, we’d have breakfast at the Greek greasy spoon, sometimes with Angelina, sometimes with some of the other leftovers from the bar. We regaled each other with stories of our pasts and commentaries on the state of the world and nation. Nigel liked to argue politics—bait me would be more like it. Late at night, with the greasy smoke of the Greek’s grill as a backdrop, he’d pontificate like I imagined those Russian-royalty hangers-on displaced by the Bolsheviks did in the Paris cafes. An eloquent defender of privilege taking on the half-sloshed mouthpiece of the great unwashed, we bored to tears everyone around us.
Other nights, we went to my apartment or to Eric the Red’s to smoke dope and listen to music, except that Nigel didn’t smoke dope either. He seemed perfectly content, sitting there straight while we got stoned. He said he’d lived in the East Village in the mid-seventies when he’d been a roadie for groups like the Doobie Brothers and Aerosmith, and had been drugged out enough in those days. He did seem like a counter-culture leftover trying to go straight—a little off-kilter with the aura of having taken one trip too many.
Nigel was maybe ten years younger than me, but he seemed older. He was smaller than me, too, wore wire- rimmed glasses, and had a good-sized mustache. Maybe he was handsome but I don’t think so, and maybe he was attractive to women, but I doubt that too. He wore a business suit most of the time and had an unconscious tendency to treat the rest of us, clad in our Levis and T-shirts, like the hired help. I’d never seen him infatuated with a woman before Angelina came along with her pretty blue eyes, her pouting lips, and her dirty jokes. And I suspected a good part of his interest in me had to do with keeping track of her.
As for Angelina, she settled into her gold mine near Lincoln Center and became quite well known at some of the bars farther down on the West Side, the higher-priced, glitzier places where the clientele still expected they would shine in life. Leaving bars with strangers was a pattern for Angelina.
Sometimes it was the same guy for a week or so, then for a while a different guy every night. It was dangerous to do this. I might have warned her. But it was her life, and she wouldn’t have listened anyway. If she listened to warnings, she would have stayed home in Springfield.
Once she got her feet under her and adjusted to life in Fun City, she didn’t need me much anymore. Finding a studio on 110th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam, she moved out of my apartment, not really moving out after not really ever moving in. During this time, she was flush, spending like a drunken sailor, recklessly enjoying her prosperity and popularity. Dressed up, bright lipstick, colorful clothes, she would come back to the winos every couple of weeks or so, like the prodigal son, and they would take her in. She seemed desperate in some ways, but cheerful in others. She liked having money and had a lot of it.
# # #
When I saw Angelina now, it was unexpectedly—late at night in the bar or out of the blue in the early afternoon when she stopped by to have breakfast with me. I would call her, too, once in a while. I’d gotten over my crush, except when I was drunk and looking right at her, remembering how beautiful her face was against my pillow. She kept me up to date on auditions, her new discoveries and ambitions as they came and went—to open a boutique in the Village, a gallery in Soho, to sing with a piano player on the East Side—and her flirtations. She also wanted to be a bartender.
“You move so fast,” she said after watching for an hour one busy Thursday night. Already a little drunk, she sat at the corner of the bar nearest the door, very alluring in a white satin shirt opened two or three buttons along her chest. “I want to go to bartending school and be like you.”
“Number one, you don’t want to be like me,” I said. “And number two, you don’t want to go to bartending school. All you learn there is how to mix drinks. You need to work behind a good bartender to become a bartender.”
That’s how I’d learned, the hard way, bar boy to service bartender, finally to the front bar. It wasn’t the way things were done anymore. But I still had the attitude: you had to pay your dues. It rankled on me when some amateur walked behind the bar into a hundred dollar a night gig because he or she knew someone or had a pretty face.
I’d learned to pour with both hands, to make sure that the bar stations were all set up when I took over a shift, and to make sure that the bar was clean and stocked when I left a shift. I learned about working with my head up and always knowing everything that was happening at every moment. I learned how to make a good living, which means being alert for walkouts, for spotters, controlling the waiters and waitresses so they didn’t become independent contractors. I learned to know who was trouble the second he or she entered the bar. Later that night, Angelina, swaying to the music and seeming to caress the microphone with her mouth, sang a song with the band. A Tracy Nelson song that said: “It’s a nickel for a donut and a dime for a dance but it’s an arm and a leg for a little romance.”
The band loved her. Young as she was, she could really sing the blues. They talked with her at the bar on their breaks about taking on a female vocalist. Angelina was thrilled and left around two, when the band finished up, to rehearse a couple of songs and party with the band back at their apartment.
“I won’t go if you don’t want me to,” she said before she left. I had something going with a young fluegelhorn player who’d been at the bar for a couple of hours with some of her fellow musicians. They left; she and her girl friend had stayed. She had a cherubic face, green eyes, and dark eyebrows. Dressed in her black tux, carrying her horn, she was winsome, and impressed that I’d heard of Mendelssohn.
“It’s okay,” I said to Angelina.
She looked at the fluegelhorn player, who was looking at her, and said, “I’m jealous.”
I knew the band and liked most of the guys. Something like the Grateful Dead, they were stuck in a time warp, all of them well past the age for playing rock and roll in a neighborhood bar. But they wrote their own songs, played with tremendous energy, loved what they were doing. Max was the leader, wild on the keyboard, a drinker, a doper, and a carouser. His father was a Presbyterian minister in Massachusetts, so sometimes late at night, when there weren’t any women to chase, we would compare notes on fathers with strong belief systems. Angelina would be fascinated with him I knew, and he had fewer residual principles than I did, so I expected he would take her to bed.
I was wrong, of course. She took up with the bass player. Danny, like most bass players I’ve ever known, was mellow. He would play his music—usually without so much as a twitch except for running his fingers along the neck of the guitar and tapping his foot—while the rest of the band bounded around the stage like the Flying Karamazov Brothers somersaulting out of the wings to open their act. Danny leaned against his imaginary wall, his eyes closed, the bass purring out the sounds you feel in your soul, until you found yourself moving in rhythm to the rock beat of the music.
As I heard it, Danny and Max had been part of a crew running a howitzer 105 in Vietnam, both of them trying not to go deaf so they could play music again back home. A couple of years after the war, when Max arrived on the Upper West Side after ruining the family name in Barnstable, or wherever it was, he ran into his old gunner mate one afternoon on Broadway. They put together a band, called it The Hoods, and did pretty well, playing some downtown gigs at Tramps and the Bottom Line, and, of course, Oscar’s three nights a week.
“Your girl friend ran off with that black bass player,” Eric the Red told me, in case I’d missed it.
Eric was our Yugoslavian cook, a world traveler lifted up from sheep herding by Tito’s revolution. He’d become a world-class hippie, his long black hair tied in a ponytail, sporting a stringy black beard that stood out stiffly from his chin and tapered to strings at the middle of his chest.
He’d slipped out of the kitchen to exchange my late night snack—escargot—for a healthy belt of cognac before Oscar returned to perch at the end of the bar until closing time.
“She’s a real beauty. I’m sorry your heart is broken.” “She wasn’t my girl friend. My heart isn’t broken.”
“She doesn’t even talk to me,” said Eric, “and mine is broken.”
“I’m in love with a fluegelhorn player.” “Me, too,” said Eric. “Where is she?” “At the end of the bar.”
He stroked his beard and gazed at her lovingly. “She’s with a friend. We should all go to my apartment for breakfast, a joint, and Slivovitz.”
We did just that. After we necked for a while on Eric’s couch, I dropped the fluegelhorn player, whose name was Cecilia, off at her apartment on 104th Street around five and ran into Angelina and Danny on Broadway, arms around each other, both of them so starry-eyed I didn’t know if they’d even noticed me.
Pretty much sober myself by then, I read for a long time before I went to sleep and didn’t wake up until four in the afternoon. Even though it was Thursday, I wasn’t working that night because Phil, the other night guy, had asked me to switch.
I bought a steak at the market at 110th Street, and for the first time in months picked up a copy of Variety at the newsstand next door. I ate the steak, looked up auditions in the paper, and wondered about calling the fluegelhorn player. Instead, I went out around nine for a drink at the Terrace. Nick, the day guy, a long-time pal, was reading the next morning’s Daily News at the corner of the bar. He slid it toward me when I sat down. The paper was open to page three, and the story he’d been reading was about the police finding Angelina’s body Thursday morning in Riverside Park.