Back story, table of contents and sample chapters
Peppercorn Cafe is a semi autobiographical romantic literary fantasy set in the restaurant world of Manhattan.
Over the years I have experienced many bizarre coincidences and seemingly impossible encounters with friends, acquaintances and strangers in far flung places. As I repeated these stories to others, sometimes in my role as a bartender, the response actually became predictable: "I hope you're writing this stuff down." I was, and accordingly I had accumulated a sizable collection of autobiographical writings.
My mother taught me the restaurant business as a teenager, and after college I used those skills to explore the country. I learned the business in my home state of Connecticut, but have also lived and worked in restaurants in New Hampshire, Florida, Texas, Louisiana and the setting of this tale, Manhattan, where I was employed at the now defunct midtown location of the Jekyll and Hyde Club. Anyone familiar with the business will tell you that strange and comical things can happen at any given moment, and over the years I had also amassed a collection of weird and wacky restaurant stories.
One day I was inspired to combine the two collections of writings and Peppercorn Cafe was born--a weaving of straight autobiography with pure fiction resulting in a novel of rejection, revenge and romance set in a Manhattan restaurant.
I have posted the table of contents and the first six chapters below. To give a better idea of what I have done, chapter 1 is autobiography. The first half of chapter two is autobiography. The middle section of chapter 2, introducing JJ's Place and the characters therein is fiction. The story about Gopal at the end of chapter 2 is true. Chapters 3-6 are fiction, though contain elements and events of my real life. Chapters 7-10 are all autobiography. I actually witnessed chapter 8 successfully perpetrated on a gullible co worker, but made myself the butt of it here. Chapters 11-13 are fiction. Chapter 14 is an unfinished narrative poem. Chapter 15 is a letter I wrote to entertain some co workers. Chapter 16 is fiction. Chapter 17 is a very entertaining literary drinking game a friend and I invented in college. Chapter 18 is a montage of restaurant anecdotes. Chapters 19 and 20 are fiction. Chapters 21 and 22 are autobiography. Chapters 23 and 24 are fiction. Chapter 25 is autobiography. Chapters 26 and 27 are fiction. Chapter 28 is another montage of restaurant experiences. Chapter 29 is fiction.
I have also included a link to The Shakespeare Rejection Letters because it can be read as a standalone piece of fiction and is a personal fave; and a link to a detailed synopsis of the novel with full spoilers below the table of contents.
Additionally, I cast myself as the bartender at the fictional JJ's Place for the express purpose of retelling some of the stories over a bar as I have in the past, and so some bits and snatches of my dialogue at the bar in the fictional chapters also refer to true events.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The
Chapter 2 JJ’s Place
Chapter 3 Holiday Weekend
Chapter 4 Dead Wood
Chapter 5 Commando
Chapter 6 Exorcism
Chapter 7 Writer Bob
Chapter 8 The Squeegee Sharpener
Chapter 10 Brotherhood of Bob
Chapter 11 Cell Phones
Chapter 12 Dante’s Inferno
Chapter 13 Five Thousand Books In Five Pages
Chapter 14 Inferno Revisited
Chapter 15 Dear
Chapter 16 The Double Cross Clone
Chapter 17 The Dictionary Wars
Chapter 18 Shop Talk
Chapter 19 The Dentist
Chapter 20 Heaps of Rejection
Chapter 21 Paris and Lekeitio
Chapter 22 The Chocolate Bust
Chapter 23 Plan B is for Book
Chapter 24 Plan C is for Café
Chapter 25 Of Mice and Snakes
Chapter 26 Grier’s Loft Finds a Home
Chapter 28 Little Inspirations
Chapter 29 The Curtain Rises and Falls
Detailed synopsis including all spoilers.
Chapter 29 The Curtain Rises and Falls
Detailed synopsis including all spoilers.
The Manhattan Plan
In May of 2000 I moved to
The plan was simple: I was going to load several manuscripts of my novels into a backpack along with some clothes, the five hundred dollars I had saved and ride the train from New Haven to Grand Central Station. Once in New York City I planned to quickly find a place to live and to immediately seek employment in the bars and restaurants. I was raised in the business, I am naturally gregarious and I had extensive experience around the country—I had worked in a variety of restaurants and bars in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Florida, Texas and Louisiana, where I had been bartending on Bourbon Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras just three months earlier. I rarely had trouble finding work and was counting on that when I disembarked the train in the big apple with so little cash in pocket.
Once housed and employed I then intended to start networking with the city literati. I had been trying to sell my books for several years and thought it would improve my chances if I could meet with editors and agents and pitch myself in person. Since most of those I’d been contacting were in New York City, and since I’d visited the city countless times, loved it absolutely and had long dreamed of living there; and since I had nowhere else I needed to be at the time, I made Manhattan my next destination in life.
The previous eighteen months had been a whirlwind. The day after Christmas in 1998 my friend Don and I packed up his Volkswagen van and drove from New Haven to New Orleans for New Year’s Eve, and then on to the Caribbean coast of Mexico, where we planned to pass the winter being beach bums. Shortly after our arrival on said beaches Don freaked out on psychotropic drugs and our friendship ended one psychedelic morning when he tossed my things out of his van and scattered them in a lengthy swath across the sand while screaming at me about lentils and onions. His tongue was a pasty yellow from the drugs. We had been hanging out with a young couple we had met on the beach, Jaime and Eric, who were platonic friends from Bellingham, Washington. I calmly gathered my things and Jaime, Eric and I hitch hiked an hour north to Playa Del Carmen where we found a great scene and quickly made a bunch of new friends from all over the world. Playa Del Carmen was everything I had dreamed of finding, so I hung my hammock there for a few weeks and worked on a novel I was writing called Tarby Manor before catching a flight to New York in March.
I returned to New Haven where I randomly landed in the arms of a gorgeous blonde I met in the drunken party of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. She was studying pre med at Yale, we hit it off from the first moment and I stayed with her until the autumn. We achieved a perfect balance of fun and work, and while she had her face in her books I had mine in mine and finished writing Tarby Manor. Then came breakup time and it was out of her arms and back to New Orleans, where I had fantasized about living since my visit earlier in the year. A friend of mine was driving there for the winter tourist season. He was a mime who dressed as a silver robot and worked for tips in the Jackson Square area with the other street performers. They all rented a huge warehouse together and let me hang my hammock there. I quickly found a bar job on Bourbon Street and spent the next eight months attending the never ending party that is the Big Easy.
New Orleans is one of the friendliest places I have ever been, and I had many adventures in inebriation with an array of fabulous people, tourists and locals alike. One afternoon I was walking toward the French Quarter on my way to work when a pretty girl with very long hair passed me on her bicycle. She looked over and then kept staring at me over her shoulder as her bicycle continued forward. When she reached the corner of the block she wheeled around and raced back to me and with a huge smile said: “Dude! Remember me?”
“You look really familiar,” was my puzzled reply. “Who are you?”
“I’m Jaime from Bellingham! Remember? We hitch hiked to Playa Del Carmen after your friend flipped out on the beach in Mexico last winter!”
“You have got to be kidding me!” I responded, lifting her off the ground with a hug. “You haven’t cut your hair, that’s why I didn’t recognize you!”
She had recently moved to New Orleans on a similar whim as mine, and was actually tending bar two blocks down from where I worked on Bourbon Street, and we visited each other’s bar a couple nights a week and became great friends.
The city was nonstop fun, but if the drink and the gambling weren’t enough reason, as the summer heat approached I began to wilt. My heart told me it was time to move on. Somehow I got word that a couple of friends from New Haven, Mitch and Sean, were driving down in early May for jazz festival. I phoned them and invited them to crash on the floor of the warehouse and asked if they could bring me back to New Haven with them, and that was exactly what we did—we spent four days roaming the French Quarter bars and the jazz festival then packed up and drove back to Connecticut. My timing was impeccable. Just hours after kissing New Orleans a wistful goodbye it started raining, almost twenty inches in two days, and the very night after my last night in the warehouse it was under water and uninhabitable.
Throughout the winter in New Orleans I had been pondering the Manhattan plan, and so after just two days in New Haven I grew restless and decided it was time to go into effect. For now forgotten reasons I chose a Thursday morning to take my backpack to the train station. On the Tuesday two days before my departure, I was strolling downtown when my friend Allison happened by. I was going for coffee at the café, and she joined me. She explained that she was driving into
New York City that afternoon to buy photography equipment, and invited me along. I naturally went. The photography store was on west 14th. When we reached it she told me she was going to be at least half an hour if I wanted to occupy myself otherwise. I had noticed a bookstore in the basement two fronts down and told her I’d be there. Dickensian is the best word I can draw to mind to describe the shop. It was below the sidewalk, a long, dingy, low-ceilinged, musty room where books were everywhere, piled on makeshift tables and stuffed into the walls of shelves with no apparent logic overseeing any order. I wandered aimlessly, ducking my head while staring in awe at the endless piles of books. I didn’t know where to begin, but my eyes finally settled on one…None But A Blockhead, by Larry L. King. He is most well known as the author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The title quote is from Samuel Johnson, who said, “None but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money.”
The book was an autobiography about Mr. King’s life as a writer, and I mysteriously opened it at random to the page where he and his wife had decided to move to New York City to establish his writing career. They were living in the south and he had gotten a break writing a lengthy article for a major publication and so they decided to move to Manhattan. I read a couple pages of King’s book, which I frankly found astonishing in the context of my own situation.
After further browsing the next book I picked up was called The Western Canon, by Harold Bloom. I was familiar with the noted academic from the years I had lived around Yale. The book was somewhat a history of western literature. I read the introduction, and was completely thrilled to discover that the three books Bloom would take to his hypothetical ‘desert island’ were my same three: the King James Bible, the Complete Shakespeare and Don Quixote (all of which were composed/translated during the same approximate twenty year period, 1592-1613). I was very pleased with my own taste in literature at that moment—Bloom had a lifetime in academia and I was barely turned thirty.
Those were the only two books I touched in the store, and the little bits I read at random in each seemed bizarrely auspicious and more than coincidence. I was filled with elation and affirmation: I was destiny bound for New York City. There would be no fear going forward and no looking back. Allison and I returned to New Haven, and Thursday morning I organized my backpack and intrepidly boarded the train to Manhattan. At Grand Central Station I rented a locker and stowed my pack, then stepped out into the city. There was bustle and buzz and people everywhere. I had no direction nor destination, and nowhere to go, so I simply started walking.
I made some phone calls to seedy hotels looking for a cheap weekly room but had no luck finding vacancies so I continued to wander. Sometime well after dark I was aimlessly rambling around Greenwich Village when I stopped to listen to a busker play guitar. There were a few people gathered around, and I had been standing there for a few minutes when I glanced over my shoulder and did a double take. I was face to face with my old friend Duke! At once we threw ourselves into each other’s arms and started whooping it up.
I had known Duke for about a decade. He and I were both born in the same small town and our fathers were both were long haul truckers—we were certain they knew each other. Duke and I frequented the same New Haven café where we met and became friends. He had suffered a severe head trauma in a motorcycle accident when he was eighteen, and his thoughts sometimes wandered and his concentration could lag. He was misunderstood by many people for his weirdness: some were very wary of Duke and others outright afraid of him; but while he certainly had his own drummer, he was as harmless a man as I’ve ever met, and one whose friendship I cherished. One of the defining incidents I recall about Duke happened the day the Clintons came to New Haven for their twenty year Yale Law School reunion. Bill had been president for over two years. For no specified reason the New Haven police unlawfully picked Duke off the street a couple of hours before the Clintons’ arrival and detained him all day until several hours after the Clintons had left town.
At one point I left New Haven and moved to Austin. While strolling the streets of Austin one afternoon after having lived there for a year I casually bumped into Duke. Very surprised by this unexpected encounter, I asked him what he was doing in
Austin. He explained that he and his girlfriend Joelle had just moved there. Her family hailed from Austin, and she and Duke were staying with them and she was enrolled at the law school. As it happened, her family’s home was three blocks from my apartment, so Duke and I saw each other frequently again. That went on for about a year until I moved out of Austin and we again lost contact with each other. Then when I was bartending on Bourbon Street I saw him again. It was Mardi Gras, and he passed by my bar in a huge crowd of revelers. I ran out and greeted him in the street. He stopped in the bar for a drink of water and to say hello; however, I was very busy and after a few minutes he waved to me and continued dancing on his way. University of Texas
But the meeting on the street in Manhattan was the most odd, because we were neither keeping nor losing touch with each other, and this was now the third city outside of New Haven in which we’d randomly crossed paths. So once our third reunion celebration calmed down and we got to talking I learned that he and Joelle were married and living in Queens, where she had gotten a job with a law firm. He explained that she was pregnant and their living quarters were too tight to even offer me the floor, but he gave me his number and told me to give him a call once I got settled. We agreed that there was something very cosmic about our friendship then went our ways into the night.
The coincidental encounters with the books and with Duke further convinced me that I was exactly where I belonged, and I optimistically beat the bricks for miles. Some time after I sat down in a small park. I was absolutely clueless as to where I was going, and growing tired. There was a copy of the past Sunday’s New York Times beneath the bench, so I positioned myself below a street lamp and read by its light. I first perused the classifieds for jobs and living accommodations, then delved into the rest of the paper. Sometime around three or four AM I moved to a bench in the dark, stretched out and spread the sections of the paper over my body and dozed off beneath a blanket of newsprint.
I was awakened by the dawning day and the accompanying early traffic and city noise. After a few more hours of wandering I found a four by eight cubicle in a transient hotel bordering the Hudson River. My wallet was already hemorrhaging, and I had to find work pronto. Every morning I scrutinized the classifieds then traipsed far and wide inquiring at every bar and restaurant between Soho and Central Park. After two weeks my luck had consisted of naught but stone faces and closed doors and I was desperately down to my last twenty bucks. I had reached my final day of hoping to live in New York City—the following day I was going to make one final foray into the bars and restaurants, and the morning after that I had to be checked out at noon, at which time I would tuck my tail between my legs and board the train back to New Haven.
That night I was around walking around Greenwich Village and saw a place called Bleecker Street Bar, which I had not noticed before. I contemplated going in, but decided instead to go back to the hotel and rest up for my last day on the job hunt. Then I looked again through the window and noticed some guys playing darts in the back, and changed my mind on a whim. I loved playing darts and at times threw quite well, and it was a great way to make new friends, so I went in, ordered the cheapest beer and asked the bartender if there were any house darts I could use. He handed me my beer and a cigar box filled with assorted dart parts. There were dozens of various dart tips and shafts and flights but the only three that matched were a set of plastic el cheapos. They were very flexible, but from what I could tell they had never been used, and therefore were very sharp. I put my name on the list got onto one of the boards and was unbeatable. It was quite simply the best I ever played in my life. After five wins they were lined up to challenge me. I dispensed with one guy named Brad twice; he just threw up his arms and bought me a beer. After eleven games I had won several beers and retired undefeated for the evening. Just then Brad wandered out of the back room and said to no one in particular: “That was really weird. I just met a guy whose father is named Stephen King, but is not the Stephen King, so I told him my father is Larry King, but not the Larry King.”
“Is your father Larry L. King who wrote a book called None But A Blockhead?” I casually asked.
His jaw hit the floor. “How could you possibly know that?” he replied.
I told him about my coincidental visit to the bookstore on 14th just a couple weeks before, and he explained that he’d only ever met four or five people who even knew who his father was, and that I was the only one who knew anything about None But A Blockhead. We were simply awed. While continuing to shake our heads he gave me his father’s number and address in Washington DC and asked me to call and razz him about their football rivalry. I never did, and never saw Brad again, but I did leave the bar filled with wondrous amazement. How could all of this possibly mean anything but that I was meant to be in New York City? And yet I had to pay for another week or vacate my room in thirty six hours and I barely had enough money for a ticket to New Haven.
I rose early the next morning, fresh and ready to greet the day that I knew would be kind to me. It had to be. My cheerful optimism soured to frustration as I spent it in and out of twenty places with nothing but twenty more responses approximated by the phrase: ‘thank you, unfortunately no.’ By five thirty I was despondent, and had all but given up. I was flowing along in the throng on 23rd street when the day blew me a kiss and my life changed in a moment. I glanced down to see that I had stepped on a five dollar bill. I snatched it up in elation. It was yet another sign.
A few years before I had written a Jesus novel which contained a short parable in which a five dollar bill was symbolic of the blessings of God. I was broke while writing that novel, and clearly recall that as I sat in the café and wrote that section it was with only five dollars to my name, which was in my pocket. The next day I had literally reached my last dollar in the world, and was walking around downtown New Haven in the afternoon thinking that I’d really like to go out and have a couple of beers that evening, to decompress and unwind from the incessant writing I’d been doing morning, noon and night for weeks on end. I wandered up to the café where I’d penned my parable the previous afternoon, and there on the ground outside the front door was a five dollar bill! I was thunderstruck. It was about eight or ten feet from where I had sat and written my parable. It was an awesome ‘coincidence’ that quintupled my worldly wealth in an instant, and as I pondered what to do with it the answer came easily—I went out that night with some friends and enjoyed the two beers that were my wish. They were as delicious as anything I’ve ever tasted.
In the subsequent decade or so I literally found close to one hundred five dollar bills in some of the strangest places. Whenever I was with a friend or a companion they were the beneficiary of my find, the rest I gave to friends and loved ones for good luck charms, and the fivers just kept coming back to me like manna So as I stood there alone on 23rd street I offered heaven a prayer of gratitude then surveyed my surroundings. There were scurrying people and screaming traffic in every direction. I was overwhelmed. I looked to my left and saw that I was standing near the doorway of JJ’s Place. I recalled the first fiver I had found, and being just as frazzled and frustrated as I had been on that day, I decided to spend this one in that same way.
I entered JJ’s and took up a stool at the bar. I had inquired the week before and was informed they were fully staffed. The place was quiet, and the bartender greeted me immediately. He shook my hand and said, “Welcome, I’m Walt. What can I do for you?”
He was about sixty, with thick dark hair greased back, and a shock of gray that protruded back from the center of his forehead. He had a wry grin and winking crow’s feet.
“Bob,” I replied. I humbly laid my fin on the bar. “It’s been a rough couple weeks, and this is all I have. I need the most bang for the buck, including a tip for you.”
He sized me up, then lifted a green bottle from the top shelf, poured some whisky into a snifter and set it before me, with a glass of ice water behind. He didn’t touch my money. “Rough days, eh? Why so down on your luck?” he asked.
“I’m not down on my luck,” I answered, “I’m just wondering where it is. This is likely my last night in
“Likely?” he repeated after me. “That doesn’t sound like a tourist talking.”
“I’m not,” I answered.
“How long have you lived here?” he asked.
“Two weeks,” I answered.
He scrunched his brow in confusion. “What do you do?”
“I write novels and work in restaurants, but I came to the city with too little money and no real plan.” I didn’t want to talk about myself and was uncomfortable under his gaze, and so decided to taste the liquor he’d served me. It tickled its way down my throat like a warm massage. I flushed as my blood warmed and relaxation flowed over me. I stared back at him. “What is that?” I asked with great admiration.
“My Scottish cousin’s home distilled single malt, fifteen year old port wood finish,” he answered. “Directly from just north of Glasgow.”
“It’s…incredible….” was my breathless reply.
His attention was deflected from me by a new customer.
I took another sip of the scotch and rolled it over my tongue and let it seep down my throat, then took a look around. The architecture of the space was all dark wood adorned with brass. The bar was a burnished mahogany twelve stool half horseshoe. There was a huge, beautiful painting of three women playing billiards behind the bar, and ten cocktail tables between it and the forty or so table dining room. In the back were two dartboards, a pool table, and a couple of weathered banquettes. At that particular moment there were five patrons in the place, including me.
Walt wandered back in my direction. “Thank you again for the whisky,” I said. “It’s phenomenal.”
“You’re quite welcome,” he replied.
“This is a beautiful space,” I remarked. “Do you do much business?”
He wore a garish diamond studded gold watch. He looked down at it for a long pause, as much admiring as utilizing it. “Five minutes or so, right about six.”
Almost on cue, several servers appeared out of nowhere and took up their stations, the people began pouring in and dinner service was under way. I took small, savory sips of the scotch and got lost in a reverie of watching the restaurant flow. My maternal grandfather was from Scotland, and a few years earlier I had hitchhiked up the east coast through Edinburgh to Inverness, then back down the west coast along the lochs and to Glasgow. They are an incredibly friendly people living in an otherworldly beautiful land. I wondered whence my grandfather’s family had dwelled, and in what humble house in what small village Walt’s cousin was brewing his magical Scottish elixir.
Then the growing bustle of the restaurant brought me back to my barstool. Walt was right in front of me mixing a couple of drinks. “Hey Walt,” I said. “When you get a sec, can I see a menu?”
“A menu?” he replied. He looked at me crosswise and gave me a hard look. Without breaking his eye contact with me he took two steps back, set the drinks on the service bar, grabbed a menu, reluctantly handed it over the bar to me and said: “You told me that was your only five bucks!”
Suddenly understanding his perception, I hastened with an explanation. “Oh, it is! I’m not at all hungry, just curious what’s bringing all the people in.” His eyes softened, though continued to penetrate, expecting a better answer, so I quipped: “I wouldn’t ruin your cousin’s scotch with food.”
He broke a hint of a smile that silently said he was satisfied, and returned to the business at the bar. I opened the menu and studied it. It was the standard pub fare of burgers, soups, salads and sandwiches that I had served in several places over the years, so I knew much of it already.
As I sat there reading the menu, I felt the presence of a man take up the stool beside mine, and his deep, plain voice said: “I recommend the JJ reuben.” I had just read the description, which made it sound delectable—a black bean burger heaped with sauerkraut and swiss on toasted rye, drizzled with russian dressing, and served with curly fries and a kosher dill.
“I’ve already eaten today,” I replied, “I’m just shopping for tomorrow…I hope.”
“Well, come back and try it, you won’t go wrong.”
He was a large man, though not obese. I was over six feet, and he easily had me by several inches. His black, wiry hair was thin, though it covered his whole scalp, and his face was wizened with wrinkles. His most distinctive feature was his missing left front tooth, which lent a mystique to his visage. Without a word Walt served him a drink, whereby I inferred that they were familiar. Then he started making small talk with me, mundane bar chatter about the weather, the state of the city and the mayor and other such topics. I prompted him along with nods of agreement, brief observations and other chit chat. He was actually quite engaging, and mellowed by the whisky, I was perfectly content to listen.
He was positioned between me and the front door, and at one point, over his shoulder, I noticed two young women come in and take up the far corner cocktail table. I caught the brunette’s eye for the briefest moment, and a quick smile.
The restaurant was at the height of its rush, and the two waitresses serving the cocktail lounge were harried and flustered. Almost five minutes after their sitting down I noted that the two young ladies had still not been treated. They were fidgeting and rolling their eyes at the lack of service, and seemed to be contemplating leaving. My toothless neighbor at the bar was busy analyzing the Yankees roster. I had a thought to do something, then decided to carry it through. I excused myself and approached the women.
“Hi ladies, my name is Bob. What would you like to drink?”
My cutting through the lounge caused a slight stir and subsequent stares—several people were watching me, including Walt.
The blonde said: “Are you buying?”
The beautiful brunette apologetically added: “Are you our waiter?”
“Uh, well, I just help out here, but I’ll take care of you. What would you like?”
The blonde said: “Two cosmopolitans.”
The brunette added: “And two glasses of water with lemon, if it’s no bother.”
“Would you like to see menus?” I asked.
The blonde said: “Yeah, we’re starving!”
The beautiful brunette just smiled.
I went straight to Walt, who looked at me quizzically when I said, “They need two cosmopolitans, two water with lemon and two menus.”
“Are you buying?” he facetiously asked.
“You know my finances,” I replied. “You’re my accountant. I told you I work in restaurants, I have all my life. I saw they were not being attended and looked about to leave and I couldn’t help myself. It was instinct, and I apologize if I interfered. Get them a server, or if you want to start their tab, I’ll take care of them and give you the money.”
Without another word he laid the drinks and two menus on the bar. I expertly balanced everything on my abnormally huge hands, and delivered the four beverages without spilling a drop. The blonde took a copious gulp of her cosmopolitan while the beautiful brunette politely thanked me.
“Do you want a minute to look over the menu?” I asked.
The blonde said: “Oh no, we know what we want. I want JJ’s reuben. But instead of the black bean burger, I want the lamb patty. And I want untoasted white bread instead of rye, and American cheese instead of swiss. Instead of the sauerkraut I want two pickles, and I like my curly fries extra crispy, with a sprinkle of parmesan and a dash of basil. Manuela in the kitchen knows how I like it. Oh, and don’t forget a side of mayo.”
The beautiful brunette said: “I’d like the Caesar salad, as is.”
“As you like,” I replied. I went straight to Walt and relayed the order without having written down a word. I told him to let me know if he needed anything else, then returned to my seat at the bar.
“That was right hospitable of you,” said the guy whose Yankee babble I had left, “if not a little forward for someone who doesn’t work here.”
“It was an instinct,” I replied. “I’m a bartender and I saw they were being ignored and about to leave. I like this place, and I especially like that brunette.” Already halfway through the snifter of Walt’s cousin’s scotch, I rewarded myself with another gulp. I was trying to be casual, but I could not take my eyes off the brunette. She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. A couple minutes later Walt whistled to get my attention, and pointed to the two dishes of food that had been brought from the kitchen. I picked up the plates and served the ladies.
The blonde said: “I’m sorry Bob, but I completely forgot that I’m on a special diet, and that on Thursdays I’m supposed to substitute my carb rich fries with greens and low fat vinaigrette. And…oh, I’m sorry…nevermind. Would you bring us two more cosmopolitans…please?”
The beautiful brunette softly said: “Thank you again, Bob.”
I served them two more cosmopolitans, and with the highest degree of professional courtesy my restraint could summon, a plate of greens with low fat vinaigrette to the blonde, who said: “Thanks Bob, you’re great…really.”
The beautiful brunette just melted me with her smile.
Mine widened, and I just about stumbled back to my stool; I was completely taken by her beauty. I re-entered the conversation with the big guy like I had never left it. He was a buff for the trivia and history of Manhattan, and explained that the entire city water supply was inspected by a middle-aged woman in Queens whose nose had an uncanny sense for bacteria, and that in the nineteenth century there was a forced evacuation of twenty seven villages to the north to create the reservoir needed for the city water supply. He told me that and more about New York, but my eyes were fixed on the brunette.
Finally, the blonde signaled to me that they were ready for their check, which Walt tallied and gave to me to present. Their total was fifty dollars. “Thanks for coming by, I’m glad you enjoyed everything, and come again,” I said with a smile, then returned to my barstool.
A few moments later the blonde handed me their check and the cash, and said: “Thanks again B-O-B!”
The beautiful brunette lightly touched my hand and said: “Everything was great, thank you so much. I’m Sarne and she’s Jennifer, maybe we’ll see you here again.”
I watched them leave, then turned and handed the money to Walt, who was standing right in front of me. He counted it, and said: “They left you a twenty dollar tip.”
I was flattered, then replied, “No, that was your table.”
He was clearly pleased. He dropped the twenty into his tip bucket, rang the bell, grabbed the green bottle, came over to me and said: “Drink up.”
I did, and he refilled my snifter.
Then the big guy said to me: “So your name is Bob?”
“You said you’re a bartender?” he asked.
“Actually I’m a novelist,” I explained. “Two weeks ago I was living in
New Haven. I’ve been frustrated for years trying to get
published, so I stuffed my manuscripts into a backpack and decided to move
here, with the hope of meeting some editors or agents in person. In the meantime I’ve been looking for
restaurant work; I’ve been in the business all my life.”
“There are quite a few literary types who frequent this bar.”
“Well, unless they show up tonight, I won’t be meeting them.”
“Why is that?” he asked.
“Because I haven’t found any work, and I only have enough money to get me back to
He swiveled on his stool to face me, extended his hand and said: “I’m the JJ in JJ’s Place. You have a job here if you want one.”
I was dumbfounded. “Really? I…I don’t know what to say…sure, of course!”
“I was watching you closely,” he explained. “The way I see it, you just saved me a bunch of money and probably made me more. If those two women left here irate they’d go badmouthing JJ’s all over the city, and I can only imagine how many people two beautiful women come into contact with and we know how women love to talk, especially to vent when they’re angry. But you took excellent care of them, and in so doing, took excellent care of me. They did say they hoped to see you here again. Can you be here Sunday at five…in the morning?”
Five in the morning? I thought. “Sure, of course,” I replied, knowing I could easily back out.
“Good, we’ll set you up on the schedule then, Bob.” He said something to Walt, finished his drink, shook my hand again and left.
I finished the second snifter of scotch, and a third while chatting with a couple of nondescript strangers who’d sat down beside me. About nine I stood up, thanked Walt profusely and took my leave.
“Hey Bob!” he called. “You forgot this.” He shook my hand and slid my five dollar bill back across the bar. “We’ll see you Sunday at five.”
I stepped outside and stared closely at the façade. It was a simple doorway overhung with a carved wooden sign—JJ’S PLACE. There was another sign beside the door: OPEN AT FIVE PM EVERY DAY—ALMOST.
I wandered into the crowded night wondering what to do. Sunday morning at five AM? What was that all about? And I couldn’t get Sarne out of my mind.
I almost floated the twenty blocks back downtown to my hovel. I was kicking along 4th street in a dream when I noticed the Bleecker Street Bar. I still had the fiver so I stopped in. Since there was no one playing darts, I wandered into the back room to the pool tables and looked around hoping to see Brad. A younger guy named Gopal immediately introduced himself and offered me a beer and a game of pool. He was looking for an eight ball partner and I for someone to tell my story and so we got acquainted over beer and several games of pool. I told him about my writing and my recent move to Manhattan, and the sudden and fortuitous upturn my life had just taken. His father was a math professor at NYU and he was a graduate and a very highly compensated international banker. We had talked and drank beer and shot pool for a couple hours when he said he had something I could use, and reached for his wallet. I thought he was getting me an editor’s name and phone number, or his own business card. Instead, he removed fifty British pounds and handed them to me. He very nonchalantly explained that it was from work and wouldn’t go missing from anyone. He filled my glass and raised a toast.
“That is a generous gift,” I answered. I put the money into my right pocket, and removed my five from the left and placed it in his hand. “This is from me to you, my friend. Spend it wisely.”
I told him about the Jesus novel, and why five dollar bills rained on my life. I could see in his expression that he understood the significance. We shot another game, finished the beer, then went our ways into the night and never saw each other again. I slowly made my way back to the hotel and crawled into my dirty bed. By noon I had to pay another week’s rent or check out.
I awoke with sunlight beaming on my face—I had forgotten to draw the curtain. It was exactly . I paused to take account of the way my life was unfolding, then dressed and walked into the early morning city.
With the money I had left and the seventy five dollars the bank gave me for Gopal’s fifty quid, I was still sixty shy of a week’s rent. I had to resort to an ace. I had sworn not to play it unless absolutely necessary, but the time had come to pay a visit to Greg. He was an old friend I’d known from college. We had studied English together, and were the only two in our department to be awarded honors: his was for his thesis on Shakespeare’s use of the Fool in King Lear, and mine for Melville’s treatment of Job in Moby Dick. Furthermore, we were the only two at our university’s academic awards ceremony in street clothes—neither of us planned to attend graduation, wherefore we had not bought caps and gowns. As we sat next to each other on stage glaringly under dressed and visibly squirming, our years of acquaintance bonded in a moment.
Following school we both took up residence in New Haven, and bumped into each other frequently. Greg’s first endeavor upon finishing college was reading the Bible. So was mine, and whenever we got together it was to excitedly share insights into passages of Scripture we’d discovered. I’ll never forget his joy at discovering Enoch. ‘And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.’
A decade later we were still in touch, and he was living in Manhattan with his wife and two children on 8th Street. He was a gifted guitarist who’d landed a management deal, and was playing out and recording while waiting for his break. He knew of my coming to the city, and made it clear that if I needed anything, including money, to call on him. I hate to borrow money, and rarely do, but I always pay it back, so we were both comfortable with it when I knocked on his door at nine and bluntly asked him to loan me sixty bucks. I explained my circumstance, and promised that I’d have it back in a week. He gave me a hug, slipped me the money, and softly said, “No problem Bob. You’re a brother.”
I ate breakfast with he and his family, then started walking back toward the Village to pay my rent. As I turned onto 7th Avenue a gust of wind hit me stiff in the face. I braced myself and walked into it. There was nobody ahead of me anywhere on the block. I was looking at the ground and trudging forward when a twenty blew by me. I stomped it. Then came another, and a third. I looked in every inch of every direction, but there were sixty bucks and no more.
I was simply euphoric.
I went back and knocked on Greg’s door.
“Here’s you’re money back,” I said, handing it to him. He was confused. “This is unbelievable,” I explained. “I just found it blowing along seventh Avenue, five minutes ago.”
He stared into my face. “You amaze me, Bob,” he said. “Why don’t you hang on to it so you have something to live on? I’m not worried about it.”
“Neither am I,” I replied. “I’ll be fine. That’s why I’d rather give you the money now and save the favor for another day.”
“Whatever you like. Stop by and see us any time,” he said. “For where two or three are gathered together unto my name….”
“There am I in the midst,” I said, completing the scripture we both so loved. “And you come see me at JJ’s.”
After paying my rent I had forty hours, and no dollars, till I was expected at the restaurant, so I tucked my miniature New Testament into my back pocket and wandered for miles and miles throughout the city, both exploring and finding quiet places to read.
I did not sleep at all Saturday night, and approached JJ’s with some trepidation on Sunday morning at five. It was Memorial Day weekend; I couldn’t begin imagine why he wanted me there at that hour. I was immediately relieved to see the lights on and people inside. I sucked a deep breath and ventured in.
I could see about seven or eight people all scrubbing, painting, cleaning and mopping. JJ was right inside the front door, sanding a bench. He immediately stood up and greeted me. “Bob, great to see you. Welcome to cleaning day at JJ’s. Give yourself a tour of the restaurant, have some coffee, and find something to do.” He shook my hand, flashed his holey smile, and returned to his work. I said hello and introduced myself to a couple of people, then noticed Walt polishing brass. I went over and said good morning.
“Welcome aboard, Bob,” he said. “Go find something to clean. The sooner we’re finished, the sooner we depart. It’s good to see you again.”
I showed myself around the back, at the kitchen, dry storage, the walk-in cooler and the office. Then I wandered back out front. I could feel the eyes upon me, and especially JJ and Walt’s. I went behind the bar…where I wanted to be. It was clean enough, but I noticed shards of glass and shmutz at the bottom of the two beer coolers, so I emptied them out and scrubbed them down. Then I pulled the entire bar apart and cleaned under the wells.
About JJ inspected every corner of the restaurant, and announced: “Great job everyone. Thank you. Put everything away and meet me out front in five minutes, I’m bringing the van around.”
Five minutes later I was boarded, and seated next to Walt. JJ took the wheel and drove us out of the city. We crossed the
onto I-95 into George Washington Bridge Connecticut.
Walt tapped my wrist. “So what do you think?”
“Let me fill you in. The Sunday of Memorial weekend is JJ’s cleaning day. We learned long ago that the whole city is out of town and we get no business here on 23rd street. The first year he decided to close he had a couple of cankers on the staff that he wanted to bid good riddance. He scheduled them to be at the bar at Sunday, with no explanation, and when they didn’t show, they were gone. The next year he did the same thing, but we all got together to give the restaurant the scrub down. There were three more dissidents on the schedule he wanted out, and they never appeared again.”
I didn’t know what to say until I finally mumbled, “So where do I fit in?”
“Your timing couldn’t have been better,” Walt replied. “Two people came off the schedule today.”
“Ah,” I said with a nod, then looked out the window at the passing countryside. I was feeling very, very good. Walt tapped my wrist again. “JJ asked me to give you this—an advance on your pay.” He discreetly slipped me two hundred dollars in tens and twenties. “I promise you’ll be able to pay it back within a week.”
He sensed my reluctance, and shoved it into my palm.
“So where are we headed?” I asked.
“To Margaret’s home in
Milford, in Connecticut. She’s JJ’s mom. She lives on the water, and throws a beach
party every Memorial Sunday. It’s always
a great time, believe me.”
“I know Milford well,” I replied. “I’m from
New Haven; it’s two towns over.”
Half an hour later we were off the highway and into the neighborhoods of
Milford. It was about ten. Looking out my window I saw literally dozens
of yard sales in progress.
“What’s with all the tag sales?” I asked Walt.
Milford tradition,” he replied. “Every Memorial weekend they swap nickels and
crap into each other’s garages, then pack up and go to their picnics and
barbecues in the afternoon.”
A moment later we pulled up beside a beach house and alighted from the van. Beside myself there were eight people—they were the heart and soul of JJ’s staff, and as I got to know them all quite well, in retrospect I find it here meet to introduce them into the story. There were JJ and Walt, of course. And there was Bixby, a proudly gay struggling actor who aspired to Broadway. He went to auditions by day, and waited tables at JJ’s by night. He was a flamboyant character who had starred in a couple of failed off Broadway shows. He had been with JJ for six years. There was Josie, a lovely, petite, outgoing middle-aged woman. She had worked for JJ for ten years, and was the dining room manager. There was Fred, aka Fernando. He was an elder black man who washed dishes and did some prep work. He had a flask hidden on the dish table, which Walt kept filled. He was one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. He was always smiling and whistling…had a bottomless repository of jokes…and an uncanny penchant for pithy wisdom at the perfect moment. He had worked for JJ for fifteen years, from the day the doors opened for business. There was Lindsay, a demure, attractive college girl who was studying journalism at NYU. She had worked for JJ for two months. There was Cheple, JJ’s nephew. He was a good-looking guy in his late twenties, a manic soul grasping for self-discovery whose aspirations varied between taking up the cloth and preaching Scripture to racing stock cars. And finally there was Manuela Marcella, the kitchen manager. She was a Venezuelan beauty in her mid thirties, and a mystery to me. Her mother was native and her father Italian, and she was a classically trained four star French chef who’d been whipping up JJ’s pub grub for five years.
Margaret hurried out to greet us. She embraced her son and reached up to kiss him. Then she did the same to Cheple and Walt.
“Madge,” Walt said, returning her kiss, “it’s always a pleasure to see you.”
“Come, come inside, everyone!” she beseeched. “Breakfast is ready and waits.”
She bustled indoors with everyone in tow. I was last in line, and paused behind and beheld. The sun was up in the east, and the sand beneath my feet. There were reeds in the ground and salt in the air. I swallowed a deep breath, then broke file and quietly went off alone. I doffed my shoes and socks, trudged across the soft sand and put my feet in the tide. The water lapped up and licked my toes. I was at ease, and at peace, and feeling very blessed, and became entranced staring out over the water. Then a hermit crab nibbled my toe, which returned my mind to the shore and prompted me to go into the house, where everyone was socializing and enjoying Margaret’s breakfast.
She came right to me and made welcome. “Bob! Join us. Help yourself.”
“How do you prefer to be addressed?” I asked.
“However you feel comfortable,” she replied.
To everyone’s curiosity I whispered in her ear: “Madge, do you have scissors I can use? I’d like to shorten my pants.”
I had been wearing the same black pants every day for almost a month. They had become disgusting to me; they clung to my legs like a moldy second skin. There was a pause in the room, then Madge grasped me by the wrist and said: “Come with me, dear.” I was her captive audience on a tour of the beautiful home of which she was so rightly proud. She brought me through every room with the cheerful haste that stemmed from her vivacity, and showcased her antiques and furniture while telling me the stories about them. At the furthest reach of the second floor we finally arrived in her sewing room, where she plucked shears from a drawer, held them out to me, and said: “Will these do?” she asked. “Why do you want to cut your pants?”
“If you can keep a secret, I’ve been wearing these almost every day since April,” I confided, “and if I’m going to spend the day at the beach, I’d like to cut them off and go about in comfort.”
She handed me the scissors and left, saying that she’d see me back downstairs. I made short work of my pants, and a few moments later returned to the kitchen, where Madge was cleaning up. The others had already finished eating and spread themselves along the beach. She noted that I had missed breakfast, and so made a pot of tea, warmed a couple of muffins, and insisted that I sit down with her. As we were chatting, JJ came through the sliding glass doors. “Where’s the wood for the bonfire?” he asked.
“Billy couldn’t make it with the wood,” she answered. “He had to go to
Schenectady to bail out
“Well, what are we going to burn?” JJ wondered aloud. “We have to have a fire. How about all that crap out in the garage?”
“You will not touch a stick of that furniture, Jasper Jonah,” she scolded. “And it is not crap.”
I had an idea. “Hey Madge, is that your pickup truck out front?”
“It is,” she replied.
“Can I borrow it for a couple of hours?”
“Dig a pit,” I said to JJ. “I think I know where to get some fuel.”
‘That’s not writing, that’s typing.’ -- Truman Capote
Madge fetched the keys, took me out front, explained the idiosyncrasies of the clutch and the brakesss then sent me off. I pulled the truck up in front of the first yard sale I saw. I glanced over the antiques and the junk, then found what I sought—three huge boxes of books. They were marked ten cents apiece. I gave them a cursory but insightful inspection. There was a nicely embossed hardcover edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron, and a well-thumbed paperback of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There were also a few nice looking children’s books. The rest were trash. The woman running the sale came over to me and asked if she could help.
“How much for the lot?” I asked.
“You want them all?” she rejoined in surprise.
“All three boxes.”
She couldn’t conceal her delight. “Five dollars,” she answered. “And there’s two more boxes in the garage that I’ll throw in. I’m glad to be rid of them.” So I paid her, loaded the three boxes into Madge’s truck, then she led me into the garage for the other two. We hauled them out and I quickly sorted through them. They too were trash, but for a beautiful volume of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I dumped two boxes into the bed of Madge’s truck. Into one empty box I placed the Dickens, Boccaccio and Dumas books, and the children’s books into the other. Then I went on my way two doors down to the next tag sale.
They had seven huge boxes which they let go to me for ten bucks. They too were relieved to be rid of them. I sifted through them and found three Bibles and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. They went into the good book box, and the rest were rubbish.
I was twenty minutes out and Madge’s truck was already overloaded, so I returned to her house and backed it onto the beach. Most everyone came over to me.
“What’s all this?” JJ asked.
“Dead wood for the bonfire,” I replied. “Give me a hand unloading these and I’ll be right back with more. Just don’t touch the two boxes in the back.”
JJ, Bix and Cheple helped me heave the books into the sand and I went out on another run.
Thirty bucks and three tag sales later I had the truck bulging again, and had sifted The Aeneid, Milton’s Paradise Lost, a collection of Robert Herrick’s poems and George Orwell’s 1984 into the good box. The rest were fit for the fire.
I returned to Madge’s and drove the second load onto the beach. The others were busy digging a pit; they hastened to help me unload. While thus engaged, JJ took me aside. “I know what you heard inside the house, and I’d appreciate your keeping it to yourself.”
I shook my head, sincerely baffled. “What did I hear?”
“Jasper Jonah,” he replied. “My real name. No one knows it, and they keep trying to pry it out of me; I prefer JJ, and to keep it that way.”
“Safe with me,” I assured. “Let me go gather some more of these unreadable logs.”
Word went out quickly in the neighborhood, and there were stacks of boxes awaiting me on each block. I was out for two hours and returned with five more loads, so that we had a ten foot mountain of books heaped on the beach. Then I went out for the seventh time, and returned with my boxes of keepers. I found dozens of Bibles: in Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian and German; I found a parallel New Testament in Greek and English, an Oxford revised standard version with Apocrypha, a Gideon Bible, and several King James, which I prefer. They were the crown jewels of the collection, so to speak, and I set them aside in their own box, along with the copy of the Q’uran I had uncovered. (I also found The Book of Mormon, and the New International Version of the Bible, to which the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Adventists refer, and which expurgates forty four scriptures while altering others. Being specious, interpretive translations of the Bible designed to justify themselves, they fulfilled the definition of blasphemous as I understand it, and I consigned them to burn.)
I had also rescued William Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air and Woody Allen’s hilarious trilogy Side Effects, Getting Even and Without Feathers. I had copies of Aristotle and Socrates, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, a ten tome Dostoevsky set, Doyle’s complete Sherlock Holmes, the collected stories of Poe, and the prized thirty seven volume Signet Classic annotated Shakespeare with their beautiful cover sketches by Milton Glaser.
I also filled four boxes with children’s picture and chapter books. I was not versed in them, wherefore not fit to be their judge, and decided to find someone more knowledgeable for the task. I did, however, find several treasures from my childhood, which I set aside for myself: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War and John Christopher’s Tripod trilogy, The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire.
Madge looked in the back of the pickup truck at the eight boxes of books lying there. “Don’t you think we have enough already?” she asked.
“These aren’t for the fire,” I replied. “These are the good ones.”
“Well leave them there for now and come have some food and drink,” she insisted.
“I will,” I answered, picking up two of the boxes, “but I want to bring these out back.” She helped me with a small box and led me to the back of the house. We set them down out of the way and joined the others at the picnic table, upon which was piled enough food to feed fifty, and where my new co-workers were lined up filling their plates. I got behind Bix. “Burning books, eh?” he remarked with a clear intonation of disapproval.
“Someone’s got to do it,” I replied. I could sense everyone eyeing me with extreme curiosity.
“I took a seat at one of the tables. JJ immediately sat down beside. He held two glasses of beer, one of which he put in my hand. “Saludte,” he said, tapping my glass. I put it to my lips, drained it to the bottom, then let out with the ‘ahhhhhh’ of delectation.
“Guinness….” I said with deep satisfaction. “My favorite, and it’s never tasted so good.”
“It’s my favorite too,” he responded, “but I’m not sure I like it that much.”
“I’ve just spent two hours in the sun inhaling the dust and must of ill-conceived and badly written novels and I’m parched,” I explained.
He laughed, set his glass down and shortly returned with another for me. “So, what would you like to do for work in my restaurant?”
“Whatever you need,” I replied. “I’m broke. I’m available whenever for whatever morning, noon and night every day for the foreseeable future. I’d prefer to work front of the house and I’m strong behind the bar, but I’ll do high dusting, chop onions and take out the trash if that’s what you need.”
He smiled, clinked my glass again, and said: “We’ll fit you in.”
We paused and sipped our beers together.
“Books, huh?” he said into the silence. “I’d have never thought of it. What’s the idea?”
“I bought myself a book collection and I’m cleaning it up. As I see it, there are heavenly books, great books, good books, bad books, stupid books and books conceived in evil. The latter three pervert impressionable minds, which inspire weaker souls to perpetrate all manners of ill and crime against society and themselves. They are also dumbing down our artistic culture, to which I, as a novelist, take personal offense.”
“But burning books, something feels wrong about it,” JJ said. “I remember seeing an inscription at the Holocaust museum from the Jewish German poet Heine, who said: ‘where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.’”
“Let me ask you this,” I said. “There is a racist bomb making manual thinly disguised as a novel that inspired Tim McVeigh to maim and murder hundreds, including mommies and babies in Oklahoma City. And as to Germany, Hitler’s Mein Kampf led to the senseless slaughter of countless millions. If you were holding those two books in your hands right now, would you read them and pass them along to friends with a recommendation, either for their qualities or their historical significance? These copies belong to me, and I choose to burn them.”
“Touché,” he replied.
As the setting sun melted into the twilight, we cleaned up our mess, freshened our drinks and made a circle around the heap of books in the bonfire pit, which they looked upon with great wariness. I had stacked the books upon kindling made up of loose driftwood and busted furniture I had scavenged from the sales. JJ handed me a box of wooden matches and said: “I think you should light it, Bob. No one else seems to be stepping forward.” I looked around at their shadowy faces, then struck a match and flipped it in. The timid blue flames crawled around the edges, and the books slowly began to consume.
Lindsay was standing to my left, and as the fire gradually took hold, asked me: “Isn’t in sinful to burn books?”
“Good books, yes, but evil books corrupt weak minds and stupid books waste a lot of time,” I replied. “Every word in the pile is rubbish, let Fahrenheit 451 reduce this nonsense to cinders. It’s rot and poison to malleable minds and the world is a better place by the existence of one less copy of every book in that bonfire.”
“I still don’t agree with it,” she answered.
I had a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in one of my boxes nearby. I fetched it and gave it to her, and said: “Read chapter six, ‘The Inquisition in the Library.’ Then I think you’ll better understand what I’m doing is not so evil.”
To my surprise she took the book straight into the house. She returned ten minutes later and offered it back to me.
“Keep it and read it,” I said. “It’s fabulous.”
“Thank you, I will,” she replied and set it out of the way on a picnic table. “That chapter was great, but you can’t possibly have read all these books.”
“I’m familiar enough to confidently declare them firewood.” The blaze was beginning to crackle.
“Well, I still think you should read at least twenty five pages of a book before giving up,” Lindsay answered. “I can’t see how you’ve possibly done that with all these.”
“I can sometimes tell in the first five pages, the first paragraph, and with the first sentence if the book is bad enough. This past Christmas my sister bought me a novel, that to her seemed funny by the back cover and that she thought I might like. I sat down and started to read and it is surely one of the stupidest books ever written. It begins with an academic burying what he considered to be the manuscript of his failed novel in the woods in
Maine. Some time later a bear—yes, a bear—digs it up, reads it, decides it has
literary merit, and takes it to New York.
Along the way the bear stumbles across an empty jam jar with the label
partially scratched off, leaving only the words Hal Jam. He adopts that as his nom de plume, goes to New York City and gets it
published and becomes a literary sensation….”
“The Bear Went Over The Mountain!” she cried. “Burn it now! I read it to the end, and it only gets more unbelievably worse and worse and worse. That novel wasted hours of my life on the subway that I can never have back, and I resent it!”
I egged her on. “Who’s in charge of quality control at the publisher? Hang ‘em by their broken eyeballs then demand a refund!”
“I did!” she cried. “I actually wrote the publisher and complained for tricking me into buying it, and I still refuse to purchase anything they sell.”
I had come across a copy of the very novel in my travels that afternoon. I had set it aside for a particularly special moment, and that time had come. I placed it in her hand.
She looked at it with contempt, then flung it into the embers, shouting: “The Bear Went Over The Mountain, take your place in this fiery fountain!”
There was a stutter of laughter, then an ill eased hush crept over us all. Bix finally broke the silence. “I don’t know about everyone else, but this fire isn’t warming, it’s unsettling. You’re destroying books.”
“I’m not destroying books, only my copies of them,” I explained. “All these still exist; these pages are merely delivery units, and this my collection to do with as I wont. You may have any of these that you like, and if you really want to read one that’s already burnt, you’ll remember the name and get your own copy. Do you see this life of Napoleon? Here’s what I think of it.” I tossed it into the fire. “There’s plenty more at the public library, go read it whenever you like.”
“I noticed all the Bibles,” Bix said. “Jesus gave a parable about how the Enemy sowed weeds among the wheat, and rather than risk harming the good wheat by trying to root out the bad, he advised letting them grow to maturity. ‘By their fruits you will know them….’”
“Indeed he did,” I replied. “I can find it in a moment.” I grabbed one of the Bibles and leafed through it. “Here it is.” I read it aloud. “‘Let them both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.’” I set the Bible open to the verse on the picnic table near my boxes of books. “This is my wheat, feel free to eat. And these are my tares, take all that you care!” I grabbed a box of books and dumped it high up. They crackled, snapped, popped, then mysteriously exploded. The mound finally fully engulfed in flame and roared above our heads.
I grabbed my full glass of Guinness and tilted it down my throat. It suffused and emboldened me. I snatched a random book off the pile waiting to be burned, and read the back cover aloud. “’A serial killer is on the prowl in
Akron. His mother holds the key to the pattern of
his killings, or is she carefully picking out his victims?’” I tossed it onto the inferno, crying, “Jane
Hatterson’s Rat And Louse, welcome to
your brand new house! And here’s
another,” I continued, grabbing another book and reading the back cover
blurb. ‘With impeccable research and
virtually irrefutable proof, Mr. Von Riche postulates that the earth was
populated by an alien race, the Vogols, to breed an army to use in their
eternal battle against the Denvardians.
He also proves that Jesus was black and lived in what is now Zimbabwe.’ Eric von Riche’s The Truth About The Earth, let this fire reveal your true worth!”
“I read that one, and I’ll drink to that,” Madge said. “In fact, let’s all have a drink.” She handed out the glasses of cognac that she’d gotten distracted from pouring.
Then Josie picked up a book, and said, “Hey, I actually read this one. What rubbish. It’s a romance about a socialite who seduces powerful men all over
and dumps their babies in orphanages.
Then in a moment of desperation and remorse she writes to all the
fathers to tell them where to look for their children before committing
suicide.” She tossed it into the
flames. “ Maeve Planchet’s The Abandoned Socialite, let your dreck vanish
into the night!”
“Cheers everyone!” JJ said, raising his glass. Intoxicated by the liquor and the spell of the blaze, everyone toasted and joined in the fun, picking up books, tearing them apart and hurling them onto the fire—the literary funeral pyre fueled by its own immolation—with gusto and clever rhymes. It turned into a rollicking good time of fun and bonding.
I had noticed the neighbors on either side watching our goings on from their beaches. The one on the left was a shadow lurking in the reeds, and the one to the right standing openly in the moonlight. I casually wandered over to the latter and introduced myself. His name was Jackson Wilbert.
“Why are you burning all the books?” he asked.
“Because they are toxic, and polluting our culture.”
“The fire seems to be dying down,” he remarked.
“It has been burning for hours, and we’ve gone through seven truckloads. I do wish we had some more, as the party’s going strong.”
“Well, I’ve overheard some of the epithets, and have to agree on most counts. I may be able to help you out,” he remarked. “Come take a look if you like.”
I thought for a moment, then followed him to his house. He threw up the garage door, and there before us were wall to wall books, at least fifty boxes. It was so full in fact, that there was no room either to walk in or out. “You can burn them all,” he offered. “That should get you through the night.”
“That would be great,” I responded, “but I’ll have to go through every one, however briefly. I refuse to burn good books.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he explained. “It’s already been done. Come inside, I’ll show you.”
He led me into the house, through the front sitting room, which contained a piano piled with reams of sheet music, and on into the library. Three walls contained shelves loaded with hundreds of volumes. They varied widely in content and matter, but from what I could see, they all had one thing in common—they were good. They ranged from centuries old classics, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, an extensive collection of Shakespeare, Tristram Shandy, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress and on into nineteenth century literature, including extensive collections of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Melville and Twain. One wall was devoted to history books, and the third to contemporary writers he admired, most of whom I did not recognize.
I also noticed a typewriter and a pile of manuscript pages on his desk. “What are those, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’ve dabbled in a couple of novels,” he explained. “They’re works in progress…perhaps I’ll tell you about them sometime. Let’s go back to the garage.”
He went on to explain that the books in the garage had belonged to his deceased wife; and though he loved her dearly, she’d had the worst taste in novels. He had removed every worthy book from the boxes, and since she had been cremated, it seemed only fitting that her books follow her thusly into the afterlife. So we each grabbed a box of romance novels, hauled them over to Madge’s and returned the smoldering embers of bad writers past to their blazing glory.
Jackson to everyone. He and Madge were already well acquainted;
she handed him a snifter and refilled mine, then like a parade of ants raiding
a picnic we hauled the boxes of Jackson’s
books to the fire. The party went all night,
and we all had a ball.
The last book burned just as the sun was nudging the firmament. “Let’s say we call it a day, a night…and a day, and a great success,” JJ said. Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the neighbor to Madge’s left skulk out of the reeds and into his house.
“Before we retire, there’s something I’d like to do,” I said.
“Of course, absolutely,” they responded.
I led them to the picnic table where I had stashed the good books. “I love books more than you’ll ever know. They are my passion. They are ancient lands, foreign cultures, the philosophies, religions, the past and the future, the experiences, minds and hearts of others. I’ve only gotten to know you all this night, but I’d like to give you each a book, one I hope is appropriate to what I’ve learned about you. I first went to JJ, and presented him with a beautiful hardbound version of Richard Burton’s translation of 1001 Arabian Nights. “I chose this based on my first impressions of you…it doesn’t get any better.” Then I went to Bix and proffered Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. “I think you’d do well to read the story that inspired the Broadway sensation you aspire to star in.” Then I went to Walt and handed him Melville’s Moby Dick. “Since you mentioned your years as a sailor, here is the greatest tale of the sea ever written.” I then went to Josie and handed her Romeo and Juliet. “Since you were so fond of throwing bad romance stories into the fire, I thought I’d give you one of the greatest.” I then went to Cheple and presented him with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. “I really haven’t been able to get a good read on you, but this novel is fantastic.” At last I went to Madge and presented her with an exquisitely embossed oversize family Bible. It was dated 1809, and inscribed with births, marriages and deaths. “I know nothing of your faith, and by no means am trying to foist mine upon you, but I thought this would look perfect in your bookcase.”
With the book between us, she hugged me, kissed both my cheeks, and announced, “God bless you, Bob!”
I thanked her, then went to the picnic table where Lindsay had left Don Quixote. I took it and started toward her, then paused to admire her beauty, so stunning in the freshening light. I regained my step and placed it in her hands. “We discussed this already.”
“You know I’m going to read it,” she said, clutching it. “And thank you for turning me on,” she added with innuendo. Her smile raised my body temperature by degrees.
I was now empty-handed, and turned to see
looking at me with a somewhat sad, left out expression. I made straight for him and extended my
hand. He took it and I pulled myself
closer to his ear. “I do have a book for
you, but unfortunately it’s not here. It
is something I would be most pleased if you would read. I’ll keep it on hand at JJ’s and you can pick
it up at your leisure, or I can have JJ give it to Madge to give to you.”
“It was great to meet you,” he replied, “and thanks for bringing me to the party, it was a most welcome diversion. I’ll come by the bar and get your book, but right now I’ve got to get some rest; I’ve got golf at eleven. I’m a four handicap, you know.”
He then went and graciously said good day to everyone before repairing to his home.
Madge led us inside and showed us to our beds. Mine was on the second floor with a window overlooking the water. I had only been laying there for a few minutes when I heard a tremendous squawking of birds, and sat up and looked out and beheld the strangest sight. It was Madge’s neighbor to the left, the one who had spent all night watching us from his reeds. His shape by day identically matched his shadowy silhouette; there was no doubt it was him. He was poking the smoldering remnants of our bonfire with a stick, and occasionally picking bits out. I was close enough to recognize them as charred book covers. I watched him gather about fifteen; then something spooked him, and he hastily slunk back to his house and disappeared indoors.
Madge aroused us just a couple hours later. It was late in the morning, and time to return to the city; JJ’s opened at five. But first we had to take care of the mountain of ash. Walt suggested the water, so we grabbed a couple spades, loaded up the empty boxes and dumped them into Long Island Sound. What little was left we buried in the sand.
As we were gathering ourselves to leave, I found myself faced with a dilemma: what to do with the books I wanted to keep. There was no way they’d fit in my four by eight room, so when a convenient moment presented itself, I took Madge aside.
“I don’t have any place for these books right yet,” I explained.
“Don’t worry dear,” she replied, “they’ll be safe here.”
“And I don’t want the children’s books, I just didn’t feel comfortably burning them,” I added.
“I’ll take them round the library and elementary school…I’ll find them good homes,” she answered.
So with many hugs and kisses and thanks, we boarded the van and headed to the highway.
“Where do you live that you can’t fit in a couple boxes of books?” JJ asked me.
“In the Riverside,” I softly answered with some embarrassment.
“Isn’t that a transient hotel?” he asked.
I nodded. “I’m afraid I’m stuck there till I save enough cash to get out. That’s why I’m so anxious to get to work.”
“Well, I’ve got a full staff tonight, but I’ll get you started tomorrow. In the meantime, stop by later and we’ll talk things over a couple pints of Guinness. I’ll be there all night.”
“Thanks, I’ll be in.”
On account of our short sleep the van was soon filled with the sounds of snoring, and the ride back to the city virtually devoid of conversation. We pulled up in front of JJ’s about two, unloaded and went our ways. I had spent most of the money Walt gave me on the books, but I did have a few dollars left, and so stopped and bought myself some decent looking clothes at a vintage store. Then I returned to the squalor of my room and napped (as best I could with all the strange noises and shouting going on around me). I woke up about seven, showered, donned my new digs and walked up to JJ’s, arriving about eight.
JJ was sitting at the bar, and I took up the stool beside him. “Howdo Bob?” he asked, then called for Walt to bring me a Guinness. Walt set it before me and shook my hand.
I toasted them both. “I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve already done, and for bringing me aboard. I’d be slumming around friends’ couches in
New Haven otherwise. You won’t regret it.”
“I know I won’t, or I wouldn’t have done it,” he replied.
“So, why me?” I bluntly asked.
“I know a good man when I meet one,” he explained. “I came to New York twenty years ago much like you, with little money and knowing no one. Thanks to the trust and generosity of some good strangers I got the breaks I needed, and here I am now with a thriving business and oodles of friends. Consider this my way of giving back by paying forward.”
“Well, you’ve found a grateful beneficiary,” I answered. “Something similar happened to me when I went to Spain a couple years ago. Hopefully this will have a better outcome.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“I found up myself in Lekeitio, a Basque fishing village and summer tourist town on the north coast. I befriended a couple locals in a bar, they introduced me to their friends, and within two weeks they had offered me work on the tuna boats and an apartment rent free for three months.”
“So what did you do?”
“I thought long and hard, then came home.”
“Because I was anxious to try again to start my writing career,” I explained. “I had mailed off a huge pile of submissions just before leaving, I was curious about the responses, and I had to be home in the event that any were positive. A journal in Denver had accepted a short story and the rest were rejection. Since that was the case I often regret my decision.”
“Sounds like it could have been an adventure.”
“It surely would have been, but done is done, and here I am.”
“Well, here’s what I have in mind for you,” he said, changing the subject. “Come in tomorrow night and I’ll have Josie train you on the floor; then come in Wednesday and I’ll have Walt train you on the bar. You can work Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday if you like.”
“There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
We finished our glasses and Walt brought us two more.
“So what’s life like in the
Riverside?” he asked.
“Disgusting,” I replied. “It’s no place for anyone who fears confined spaces, or bugs, or germs, or filth. If I stretch myself head to toe and arms wide I’m within an inch of every wall.”
“Hmmm,” he pondered.
“What’s that?” I finally asked.
“I own the four apartments upstairs. In three of them I have wonderful tenants who’ve been there for years. You couldn’t wish for better people. But I have this diabolical monster holed up in the fourth. He calls himself DJ Ray G—he’s a pimp, dealer, thief, and all around lowlife thug. He’s often up all night disturbing my other tenants. I’ve been trying to get him out for two years.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that the apartment is rent-controlled. He was on the lease with his aunt, and when she died, it reverted to him. He’s always two months behind on what he owes, and always manages to pay me the day before I can start eviction proceedings. He’s got a rap sheet that looks like a phone book page and he slips like an eel through every charge. He’s on his last chance. The judges have made it clear that if he comes before the bench again for any reason whatsoever, all previous charges will be brought to bear and he will be sent away for a long time.”
“How do you know all that?” I asked.
“A lot of off duty cops hang out around here. DJ Ray G knows it too, and keeps a low profile in his comings and goings. In fact, there he is now,” he said, directing my attention toward the front window. He was a mean-looking tough. His head was shaved, revealing a tattoo of a skull on his scalp. His scowl brought out the veins on his neck. He wore a tank top, which fully revealed the sleeves of tattoos along both arms. He strutted like someone fixing for a fight. He glanced each way over his shoulders then went up the stairs.
“You know…” JJ said ponderously; “if we could get him out of here, we could get you out of the Riverside.”
The idea held great appeal to me, and I immediately began scheming. Over a couple more beers, inspiration dawned. “Let’s just scare him out,” I suddenly said.
“Scare out who?” JJ replied.
“DJ Ray G,” I answered.
“Scare him out? How?”
“With a commando raid.”
“I don’t get you.”
“Well, it would be an operation, and would take some gonads, but what if we….”
I explained my plan, which excited him. “Let’s do it tonight and have done with the punk thug!” he growled. “Hey Bix, come over here.”
Bix came right up, affected a goofy voice, and said, “What’s up, boss?”
“Are you still friends with that costume person on Broadway?”
“Of course,” he replied. “She’s there right now.”
“Could you get me a couple sets of army fatigues and some face paint tonight?”
“Easily,” Bix replied. “I could make a call and be back with them in an hour or so.”
“Good, then go do it now,” JJ said. He pulled out his billfold and handed Bix a fifty. “Bob’s taking over your tables—this will cover your cab fare. Bob, those three tables in the window are Bix’s; finish them up and give Bix the tips.” Then he went to a man at the end of the bar, and said, “Hey Marty, can I talk to you for a moment?”
It had been my idea, and now I was confused. But I went with the flow and finished up Bix’s tables.
For lack of business JJ closed up at . He went upstairs came back down and reported that there was loud music and a couple of girls’ voices emanating from DJ Ray G’s apartment. Moments later Bix returned with two sets of fatigues and a box of war paints. JJ handed one uniform to me, the other to Bix, and said: “Put them on.”
“I donned mine, but Bix was reluctant. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“You want to be an actor,” JJ said, “so get ready to play a soldier.”
Bix quickly put on his fatigues. Then JJ oiled our faces with camouflage, and explained, “Marty is an old friend of mine, NYPD. He went on duty at eleven. He’ll be standing outside the door backing you up.”
I had one last thought, and said to JJ, “Do you have any sharp darts I can take up with me?”
He glanced over at the dartboards, then produced three from behind the bar and lightly tapped their tips before handing them to me. “These could draw blood.”
Marty showed up, in uniform, and we went into action. We stealthily crept up the stairs to DJ Ray G’s apartment. Marty took his position against the wall beside, and Bix and I faced the door. On three we kicked it down. Ray was seated on a ratty couch with a girl on each arm. There was drug paraphernalia on the coffee table before them. I immediately drilled one dart deep into his right bicep, and another into his right knee.
“Who the hell are you? What do you want?” he shouted. “Motherfucker, that hurts! What the—mother!” he cried, pulling out one of the darts. I stood three feet away with the third poised and aimed at his heart.
“You two get out of here now!” Bix demanded of the girls. They gathered what they could and rushed out. Marty appeared in the doorway with his gun drawn on Ray. “Flinch and you die!” he shouted. Ironically, the dart buried in Ray’s left arm was twitching involuntarily. “Well, well,” Marty said, inspecting the premises. At every moment Marty’s gun and my dart were trained on Ray’s chest, who, judging by the rank smell, had defecated. JJ rifled the bureau drawers and dropped guns and drugs onto a chair.
I had gotten so into the character of soldier that I had become one. I looked DJ Ray G in the eye, and said, “It seems to me you have three choices, but really only one. You can resist and die, you can face the judge and go to jail, or you can vacate now forever. Three…two…one….”
With the dart bouncing in his knee he rushed to the door as quickly as he could hobble. Marty halted him there. “Consider this a restraining order, you scum: if you ever set foot within five blocks of this place, it will be the last step you ever take—you will either lose your freedom for life if not your life itself. Trained eyes that know your face are everywhere.”
DJ Ray G pulled the dart from his arm, dropped it on the floor and grasping the railings flew down the stairs like his feet were afire. We watched out the window as he hurried along 23rd street in a running limp. We laughed nervously, as much in jubilation as relief, then went back downstairs and had several beers.
Marty returned to his beat, and we three decompressed from the event over a couple of a beers. At two in the morning I walked the thirty blocks to my hovel. Along the way I found a five dollar bill in front of an Asian Deli. It seemed that my time had perhaps finally come.
I awoke about , and took a few blank pages and the fiver I had found to a nearby café. I treated myself to a couple of cappuccinos and sat there for several hours writing about what was happening to me. It was portending to be the continuation of a rich and strange tale.
I returned to my room, donned my work clothes and reported to the restaurant a few minutes early. When I entered JJ was standing at the host stand. He had been awaiting my arrival and was eager to see me.
“Would you bring us two Guinness please, Walt?” JJ asked. He handed me one, sipped the other, then said: “Come with me.”
He led me out of the bar and up the stairs to DJ Ray G’s apartment. The door was still on the floor in splinters, just as Bix and I had left it.
“Come on in,” he said, taking the lead. “I want to show you something.”
I followed and looked around at the apartment. It was disgusting—there were dirty dishes and clothes and garbage everywhere, and it reeked an ungodly stench.
“Over here,” he said, directing my attention to the bookcase in the corner. From my scattered memories I recalled seeing it the night before filled with bizarre trinkets and junk. But it had been emptied of all that, and beautifully filled with the books I had left at Madge’s. “I went to visit Mom this morning, and brought them back for you.”
I wanted to say that I was speechless, but was, and so couldn’t.
“The place is yours,” JJ said.
“What about Ray?”
“He defaulted for nonpayment of rent as of today. The papers were filed this afternoon, and he’s evicted. I’ve taken measures he’ll never return again anyway. I’m offering it to you first.”
“Deal,” he said, squeezing my hand. “Here’s what I have in mind. You clean out, fix up and paint, and the first month’s free. After that I’m as fair a landlord as you’ll find.”
“That sounds like a bargain,” I answered.
“Now finish your Guinness and get downstairs,” he said. “I need to get you trained and working.”
I spent the evening hanging out with Josie. She introduced me to a few of the regulars, explained their quirks, and taught me the routine of the restaurant. She was married for twenty five years and still in love with her high school sweetheart, and they had three teenage girls. Her husband, Hendrick, owned a florist shop in
Queens. She crafted pottery in her spare time, and
had always dreamed of writing children’s books.
She was extremely friendly and funny, and her beauty well-preserved.
I stayed till the end of the night, and helped close down every corner of the restaurant. I introduced myself to the guys in the kitchen and helped them scrub the grills and the hood, and to change the oil in the fryolators. Then I went out front and helped Josie set the tables. Then I went behind the bar and hand washed all of Walt’s glassware, and dragged his rubber mats into the alley and sprayed them down. Then Fred and I hauled three heavy buckets of trash out to the dumpster. My motives were not sycophantic: I felt the truest sense of belonging, of having found the perfect match for my place and time.
When all was done I returned to the bar, where JJ poured me a Guinness. “So what do you know about the history of the city?” he asked.
“That the Dutch got the island from the Native Americans for about twenty four bucks in beads then named it
New Amsterdam,” I answered.
He corrected me. “The actual price was sixty guilders in Dutch money, which at the time were worth about seven hundred bucks. This is good stuff to know if you’re going to be a bartender here. People love to hear it, and you’ll impress the tip out of them. Grand Central Station covers four square blocks and can hold about one hundred trains and fifteen thousand people. The main waiting room of Penn Station was modeled after the ancient Roman baths of Caracalla.” The beer lubricated his tongue, and he got rolling. He went on to tell me that and that at the time of their construction the two towers of the
were the largest manmade objects in Brooklyn Bridge North America,
weighing one hundred twenty million pounds apiece, and that the four massive
suspension cables each contain more than thirty five hundred miles of steel
wire. From that he went on to tell me
that the Erie Canal is a channel forty feet wide, twelve feet deep and three
hundred fifty miles long that connects Manhattan to the heartland by way of the
Great Lakes. Nine thousand men worked on
it over eight years, and they actually completed it on budget and three years
early. I was truly fascinated, but was
also very fatigued from the long shift, and so after two quick beers worth of
historical trivia, and the promise that I would soon be borrowing and reading a
pertaining history from the world famous New York Public Library (which opened its
seventy five miles of shelves in 1911), I took my leave. On my way out the door JJ said, “Hey, here’s
the key to the downstairs door. No
worries about DJ Ray, I changed the lock today.
I’m replacing the door to the apartment in the morning.”
I wanted to go upstairs and fall asleep right then, but DJ Ray G’s bed was more disgusting than my own, so I reluctantly forced myself to head back to the
where I spent half a sleepless night twisting in my hovel. The guy on the other side of the parchment of
a wall hacked up his lungs incessantly, there was a huge row in the hall that required
the police to quell, someone pounded on my door demanding to speak to Javier, and
all the while I restlessly lay awake dreaming of the apartment awaiting me.
At I could take it no more. I packed up and checked out of the Riverside. I lugged my pounds of manuscripts and meager possessions the thirty blocks crosstown to JJ’s.
I warily approached the busted out door of DJ Ray G’s apartment. It was eerie and evil in the early morning dark. I imagined that he was there awaiting to plunge a vengeful knife into my heart, which was thumping. I quickly flicked on the light and cautiously looked in; I was alone, and immensely relieved. I set my pack down and started looking around. The first thing I noticed was the overpowering stench; I was gagging, it was so hard to breathe. I opened all the windows, and looking out one noticed JJ’s dumpster directly below in the alley. I went downstairs and flipped up the top. I returned to the apartment and started going through Ray’s effects. He was a weird and scary dude. In the corner was a shrine adorned with photos of Napoleon, Hitler, Ku Klux Klan rallies, lynchings and cross burnings. There must have been thirty half burnt candles and thirty pounds of melted wax mounded around. There was a box of wooden matches lying there, so I lit a couple of the candles, burned all the photos, then extinguished the flames and tossed the whole thing out the window and into the dumpster. The place began smelling better already.
I went to the sink, which was piled with grimy dishes and pots. I pondered scrubbing and keeping them as my own, but when I found two headless rats in the heap I hurled the whole lot out the window into the dumpster, and scoured the sink. That done, I went to his bureau. I opened the bottom of the three drawers first. It was filled with pages and books of racist literature, anarchy and bomb making manuals, and a copy of Mein Kampf that was imprinted with the signature of Rommel. I rooted around and found a metal trash can in the bathroom. I brought it out, filled it with the racist literature and books and dropped in a match. When the bucket was full of ash, I threw it out the window into the dumpster, where it landed with a thunk. At that moment I realized that I wanted nothing to do with anything related to DJ Ray, and so began heaving everything out the window.
The clothes and lamps and small furniture were the easy part, the bigger things were more difficult to manage. The mattress stank like the bowels of hell, and I had to fold it three ways to fit it through the window, and then to huff and puff to stuff it out.
Once the place was empty but for the couch, the bureau, and my beautiful bookcase, I began pacing and pondering how to rid every inch of space of every last trace of DJ Ray G’s wicked presence, and how I would then make it my own. While thus occupied I realized that the carpet I was treading upon was filthy and producing stench. It had to go. I fetched a utility knife and started cutting it into pieces and ripping it up. I had gotten about halfway across the room doing that when I reached the couch. When I pushed it to the side I noticed something peculiar—a small flap cut into the carpet. I lifted it up and saw the smaller wooden trap door beneath, with a pentagram with a swastika in each star tip burned into it. The sight made me shudder. I touched it gingerly, then opened it up.
Beneath was a hole in the floor. I shined a flashlight and saw therein three pistols, a huge bag of crack rocks, another bag filled with cash, and a strange metal hatchet ornately detailed with demonic symbols. I’m terrified of guns and so warily nudged the pistols aside, as if but their slightest touch was poisonous. Then I removed the bag of money and quickly slipped ten fifties in my back pocket, replaced the money and the cover and continued shredding the carpet. Once I had landed every fiber of rancid rug i the dumpster, I stopped and looked around. It had been laid over a wooden floor that if sanded, buffed and varnished would look stunning.
I thought about taking a break and leaning against a wall with one of my books, but I was fired up and anxious to accomplish more; however, it seemed like there was nothing more I could do without tools and supplies…then I recalled the hatchet in the floor. I lifted the eerie trap door a second time and removed the implement and hacked the couch and bureau into pieces that fit through the window, which I then tossed out.
All that remained was the bookcase. I carefully removed all the books and stacked them in the corner. Then I laid the bookcase on its back, the easier to chop into pieces. I raised the hatchet and poised to lower the first blow, but it didn’t feel right. The bookcase was an exquisite piece, and had looked even moreso when filled with my collection of books. It seemed to be different, but in my mid everything Ray had to go. My arm was cocked and I was about to let the blade fly when I was halted.
JJ had entered, and was towering over me. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked, not in anger, but wonderment. I lowered the hatchet and stood up. I explained the circumstances of the night, all that I had done, and how I was endeavoring to expunge the apartment of every last vestige of DJ Ray G. “I don’t know where Ray has gone, but he won’t be coming back,” JJ said. “He’s dead.”
“Dead? How?” I mumbled in confusion.
“He sought out and crossed Marty on his beat, and confronted him. Marty took two bullets, one grazed each arm; Ray took one in the heart.”
“How’s Marty?” I asked in disbelief.
“He’s at Belleview being treated, but he’ll be fine. He’s the toughest man I’ve ever known. He’s on leave for a few days, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he came in later tonight. I understand what you’re up to, but please don’t destroy the bookcase; it’s a family piece, my great grandfather made it in
1900.” Then he noticed the pentagram, and remarked,
“What the hell is that?”
“I discovered it while cutting up the carpet,” I replied. “Look inside.”
He ripped the trapdoor off its hinges and threw it out the window. Then he kneeled down and carefully removed the contents. The three guns, the bag of crack and the sack of cash exuded evil lying there on the floor.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“Well, since this won’t be needed as evidence against Ray, let’s get rid of it.” He dumped the drugs into the toilet and let them dissolve then flushed them down.
“I’ve got to tell you,” I said, “I’m really uncomfortable around guns. My father made me fire one when I was twelve, and I’ve never touched another since.”
“We’re on the same page,” he replied. He expertly emptied the chambers of their munitions, put the bullets and the guns into the empty crack bag, and tossed it into the dumpster.
“What about the cash?” I asked.
“First, let’s count it.” We did, and it amounted to about thirty thousand dollars. I remained silent about what was in my pocket. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “You hold onto it for now, but don’t spend a nickel without consulting me.” He removed and pocketed two one hundred dollar bills and said, “This squares us on what you owe me.” Then he put the money back in the hole in the floor. “Let’s get rid of this crap, the truck should be here to empty the dumpster in fifteen minutes or so.”
We heaved the remnants of Ray’s bureau and couch out the window. As soon as we were done, JJ said, “By the way, where did you get the hatchet?”
“It was in the hole.”
He picked up the hatchet, leaned out the window, and flung it into the trash. As if on cue, the garbage truck backed into the alley, lifted and emptied the dumpster into its hold. I stuck my head out the window and watched it drive away, silently bidding good riddance. Then we righted the bookcase and arranged the books back in.
“I’ll have a new door hung this afternoon,” JJ said. “Then we can discuss how you’d like to fix it up. You’re on the bar with Walt at five.”
“I’ll be there.”
We shook hands and he left. A couple hours later I walked down to 18th street and knocked on Greg’s door. “Come on,” I said, “I’m taking you and Marie and the kids out for lunch.”
“Okay, sure,” he replied. He gathered his family and we went to a little pizza joint around the corner, where we had a visit. After I paid the check with one of the fifties, I took Greg outside and handed him the other nine.
“You don’t owe me any money,” he said incredulously. “You never borrowed it, remember?”
“I have stumbled into a great situation,” I answered. “And without having you here I’d be back in
New Haven sleeping on
Rich’s floor with three bucks in my pocket.
Just take it; you and I know
the Lord’s blessings, and how what you give comes back five and tenfold.”
“I can’t believe you just said that,” he said with a slight look of amazement on his face. “I’ve been rehearsing with a new band, and last night we finally decided on our name: Tenfold.”
“Then take it as a sign,” I replied. I tucked the fifties into his shirt pocket. “I just moved into an apartment above JJ’s Place on 23rd; if you want to hang out or need anything, that’s where you’ll find me.”