Here’s a little something from the archives. I’ve been going to bars for a long time, and for almost as long I’ve kept with me a little notebook that I put on the bar and just sorta scribble absently in.
For a few years I frequented a bar/lounge/pool hall called “Slate” in Manhattan on West 22nd street. It was the scene of some very strange antics, and some pivotal moments in my life over those couple/few years.
Anyway, here’s one of the early “more interesting than most” nights (sadly undated in the original notebook):
A couple weeks ago, for instance, I went in to Slate on my traditional Wednesday night.
The bouncer (the crabby one who won’t acknowledge that he sees me every Wednesday he’s working) asked “what party are you with?” “Uhm… none.” Same as always dopey doodle. “Ok, go right ahead.”
I’m the guy who shows up at 7:12 on Wednesday nights. Every Wednesday night, and I have for something close to 9 months. Really? Ya don’t know who I am?
At least he recognizes me enough not to actually bother asking for id, so I know right off he’s just fucking with me. Hell, it costs me nothing so I just play along politely. Let him serve whatever part of his psyche needs feeding.
I shrug, push open the door and walk in to a ghastly sight.
There are people, dressed with fair formality, sipping out of martini glasses… EVERYWHERE. Immediately to the simpleton driving my attention I notice the compelling ratio of gorgeous girls. I mean gorgeous, not “pretty little anorexic skanks wearing their nice dress hoping to pick up a broker.”
That actually doesn’t happen in NYC as much as you’d think. The truth of the matter is that, with the standard 90/10 exceptions, traders are 24 year old power hungry jackasses who spend more on their clothes than they can afford to on their rents in order to look the part they are supposed to play, while not quite understanding why they’re strangely ill-equipped. But if you’re interested in seeing that dynamic in action, go to Southwest New York, a nice little establishment down in the World Financial Center. It’s a nice little place in a spectacular location with hit or miss food, but reasonable frozen drinks, some even with enough tequila and about as delightful a setting as you can get in Manhattan, overlooking the bay. But I wouldn’t recommend going there to relax during the after-work primetime of 4-8. It’s just… yeah, no. avoid it.
No, these girls were… mmm… curvy. Nicely curvy, wearing strapless black dresses (which is dangerous for the curvy, so I appreciate the achievement.) Unfortunately, the only other difference between them and the aforementioned husband-hunting SOHO denizen is that they’re not looking to hook up with a money man. They’re looking for something far more sinister.
And a particular artist they were here to find. Covering the walls were three foot by three foot paintings (I later found out they were on masonite, not canvas. Go figure.)
They were what you would call… “abstract” and what I would call “talentless paint splattering.” One in three or so had some dotted lines drawn on them creating every effectively the look of some architect’s worksheet that had been used as a drop cloth by a house painter doing trimwork in a twelve year old girl’s bedroom. This is where I’d love to say “But I digress.” But no. This was really quite sadly central to these people and their reasons for traveling this far uptown (21st between 5th and 6th.) Joan Miro this guy will never be, try though he might.
Of course the girls weren’t the only people in attendance. Otherwise I may very well have lost control of myself, and just stage-dived into the horde and hoped for the best. No no. Aside from the 22 year old art groupies, there were all sorts of “iusedtobehot, iusedtobehot, iusedtobehot” women standing around with their faces dragged back unnaturally, masked quite liberally in some orange confection that I can only assume was supposed to give the impression of a natural tan; perhaps without the ill-effects of actual exposure to the sun. Having met neither of these goals their only hope left was to be careful the way they smiled (such as they did) so as not to exacerbate their wrinkles, which would have been fine if they’d have just pulled the flagpoles our of their asses.
Sprinkled around there were a few benefactorly old men as well.
These various subspecies of the common metropolitan open-bar freeloaders created a fairly fascinating little social ecosystem. The artist wanted to relieve bored insecure rich people of their money and in return grant them a borrowed sense of aesthetics by masking as an artist instead of a painter. The potential benefactors were here for the young girls and wouldn’t perhaps consider a quick $8500 purchase too much of an imposition if it were to suitably impress. The girls were looking for artist types and to generally seem important enough to have a reason to be at an “art party” even if they weren’t quite sure what it was that makes that a good thing, as it doesn’t. Amidst all this, I’m sure there were a couple people who were just having a good time. I don’t think I ran in to them. But I’m sure they were there.
It was a lot to take in, just standing there at the door, my bag around my shoulder, per usual. Plus, I was blocking the door.
A long time ago I read some book, which quite escapes me now (chase it throughout the apartment as I do.) It said that one important thing to making a good first impression is to actually MAKE an impression. The only thing of substance I retain from the book (even its title is lost in the cobwebs of my mind) was this:
When you enter a room containing other people, such as a bar, a club, a party, a meeting, cafeteria, etc. walk in the door, move in a few feet (so as not to block others) then stop. Stop and let your eyes pan deliberately and blatantly around the room, taking stock evenly (evenly is important) of every person whose face you can actually see. (I’d be lying if I didn’t add that, as a heterosexual male, I take a damn bit better stock of girls, whether I can see their faces or not.)
I’ve been doing this for years and I can’t tell you how much it’s changed my interactions with people, because I have no idea. Ok, some humor aside, it really does make a difference. It’s a fairly subtle difference, but people don’t realize they notice it. It’s the difference between entering a room and making an entrance into a room. But, unless you do something ridiculous like swish your hair around or wave your arms and say “my public!” Nobody quite notices why they notice you. They just sorta become aware of your presence.
So there ya have it. Now I can safely say “But I digress.”
But I digress.
I walked up the couple stairs to the bar. It was packed. I walked the length, looking for my seat near but not on top of the service bar; less than gracefully moving between martini-ites and back, by which time a seat had vacated.
I’d caught Jenn’s eye and we snickered wordlessly about the state of the place.
Sitting down on one of the familiar square cushioned backless barstools, I heard the clink of a bottle-top and an Original Sin appeared in front of me. Apparently I’d taken her seat. Turning back around there was also a bottle of cider. Sorry, I don’t drink beer. Can’t stand it. Yes. I’ve tried that too. Yep. And that. Nope. Turns out I actually don’t like it. For now I’ll work with my gateway drug, cider.
I reached down into my bag, shuffled through it a bit (its contents are rather unkempt, what with all the empty journals and the laptop and all) and emerged with one of those moleskine notebooks that everybody seems to be so hot and bothered about. Yes yes, nice binding. Paper quality is mediocre though (far too much bleed) and the little elastic strap just comes off after any real use anyway. So I don’t use it all the time. But at $10 a pop, I feel sorta obligated to give it an honest shot.
I figured the first thing I ought to do was get down some observations of the evening; especially since the business of bartending was clearly going to occupy my friend’s attention, leaving me to entertain myself for a change (as it turns out, there were far more than enough volunteers.)
There are a few televisions in Slate and one really large projector screen that pulls down in front of the huge bar mirror covered with really really bad pick up lines. You know the ones: “Does my tongue taste funny…” etc. You usually chuckle at the first couple you read, then they just start making people wince, because they’ve heard them.
Usually I take little notice of the TV contents, as I have a chronic disinterest in sporting events. This makes me a fairly tough person to make smalltalk with. But I’ve learned to fake it pretty well and, in the course of my training in how to fit in with the culture here on your quaint little planet, I’ve learned to occasionally shout at the screen “Holy shit my MOTHER knows not to swing at that!” Unfortunately it seems that this is only relevant in particular sports.
Instead, tonight there was what looked like some home movie playing on the screens. It seemed to be taking place in a gallery of some sort. There was a featured personage walking around, being led by the camera.
On the video, he was… 35, almost stocky in build. He had some kind of black jacket on with a white shirt, pointed collar protruding all the way from 1972, and he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. One, because he was babbling away merrily to the extras who really really weren’t going to buy any of his art, babbling away to the camera, and smacking gum like his life depended on it.
Every once in a while someone would come into frame, play the air kiss game and pose for a picture with their arm around him, before retreating with their martini glass half-full of some suspiciously green liquid, before too long I recognized some of the paint splatters on the walls in the video and came to the belated conclusion that it was the artist (oh ok, I’ll throw him a bone “The Artist”.)
It seemed as though the video was an hour or so long, on loop. All night.
My anthropological reverie was interrupted by a pair of girls who were futzing with something at the bar. One leaned in
“Ooh, are you left handed?” (she asks the man sitting at the bar writing in a notebook with his left hand.)
“So are you writing down your thoughts?” I love genius in all its forms.
“Yep. My thoughts about the art, the environment, this scene, you know, that sort of thing.”
“Really!?! So what are your thoughts.” She pulled in her chin and affected probably about as scholarly an expression as she could manage being half in the bag.
“I’m sorry” I demurred, “I’m not really here for the art. I don’t think you want to know.”
“Really!?!” Suddenly and regrettably interested, she perked up. “Ooh, then I DEFINITELY want to know.” Ah. I’m an outsider. I get it now. Lesson learned.
“Nope. I don’t think you do.” It’s a weakness of mine. I see where things are going and I try to save people from themselves, if not from myself.
(cue flashback needleynoo-needleynoo-needleynoo effects)
About a year and a half ago I had gone out for a couple with people from work on a Friday night and had more than a couple. Afterwards I was bound for a party with a social club to which I used to belong, Social Circles. I arrived at the place and was greeted by a group of girls, all but one of whom I know.
One friend of mine said “ooh, good. You’re here. We’re all trying to guess her age.” They pointed to the girl I didn’t know. Cute, not over the top; the kind of girl I’d kick myself for not noticing the first time.
Now look. I know what you’re sayin’. I heard you back in time a year and a half ago. But I still had enough wits about me to do the right thing. But I ain’t gonna lie. You also know that I wouldn’t have bothered to put this little vignette down if it wasn’t going a particular way.
“I’m sorry. I don’t go anywhere near that game. No thanks.”
“They all tried.” (‘they tried and failed?’…’they tried and died.’ was all I could think of.)
“No thank you.”
“Oh come on. You couldn’t guess my age within five years.” Hmmpf.
“Stop. What would you do if I guessed right?”
“There’s no chance.”
“I’m not going to do it.”
“Whadareya, chicken?” I think I actually growled.
“Ok, fine. That’s three times you asked and three times I turned you down. Now I’m gonna guess your age.” Hell. I was going to hell. I looked her up and down pretty good, paused, tapped my lips with my forefinger and said “You sure?”
“You’re 41.” The horrified and astonished inhales from the assembled group sucked the air out of the room so effectively that you could hear the ears of everybody in the bar pop at once at the sudden decompression. I’m not at all sure I didn’t hear a record scratch and a glass break. She, of course, was horrified.
“What makes me look over forty?”
“Am I right?”
“What makes me look OVER FORTY?”
“AM I RIGHT?” She was hyperventilating now.
“Yes, you’re exactly right.”
“I KNOW! I actually tend to date women about 40-41. I’m really good at that.” Leave it to her to figure out if I meant dating 40 year old women or guessing their ages. “Now come on, let me buy you a drink.”
She walked out. I turned to the assembled council of the fairer sex and they all jumped in “No no. stop. You’re in the clear. You said no again and again and she just wouldn’t let it go.”
“Ok. Good. Just checkin. Never ask a question you don’t really want the answer to.”
I know. It’s a fool’s game, and an attempt to teach an unlearnable lesson. But they’ll bury me before that’ll stop me.
“So what do you think of the art?”
“I think it sucks. I think this whole evening is a bunch of self-indulgent crap. It’s actually very entertaining.”
“Uhm… Entertaining?” I got the “ewh…mah….gahd…” look of disgust and pause right out of 1982. I couldn’t possibly be saying that out loud right?
“Yep. Entertaining. Told you you didn’t want to know.”
They walked away. I just smiled and wrote it all down.
On my way back from a men’s room trip (let’s face it, I was ripping through alcoholic beverages at an impressive rate) Jenn caught my eye and said “Hey, I had to move you down a few.” Apparently a clutch of groupies had jumped claim.
I went over and sat down in my new seat, and didn’t really notice a difference. My notebook, pen, and bottle of Original Sin had all been flawlessly reinstalled.
I took a sip of my cider and heard…
“Can I have more olives? Bartender. BARTENDER!”
The next occupied seat, two to my right, was filled with a 63 year old woman of about 245 pounds at five foot four. Bleached perm and the outfit I’d expect to see on a cute 22 year old. Short skirt, three inch pumps, coat over a white billowy blouse of some kind. Ogra’s kid sister.
“Hi. I’m Ariel. I’m a gossip columnist.” I figured hell. If anybody looked the part, it was her. This could actually prove to be an interesting conversation.
“Hya Ariel. Mike. I’m just Norm in this particular bar on Wednesdays.”
“So what do you think of the art?” Ugh. I suppose it was inevitable.
“I really don’t like it. It lacks cohesion. Frankly, it looks like someone else’s drop-cloths.”
“It’s very spiritual. I’m getting something to eat. Do you want to get something to eat?” The bartender plunked a toothpick with a few olives in her empty martini glass. Frankly, I was hoping for one of those cute mini plastic rapiers. Some ancient warning about eating the faerie queen’s food came to mind for some reason.
“Uhm… No thanks.”
“No no. You have to hear him exPLAIN it. I came all the way down from Scarsdale to see this. Really. It would make sense if you listened to him explain it. It’s all about his process. He’s very spiritual.” Pagan. Gotta be a pagan. Pagans are obSESSED with their “PROCESS”. It’s the only thing that keeps the focus off the fact that their ACHIEVEMENTS aren’t worth measuring.
“So what you’re saying is the paintings don’t really stand on their own merit?”
“Well, they do once you know what they are about. CAN I HAVE MORE OLIVES PLEASE!?! It’s a very spiritual process. What was your name again?” I was amazed that she was really going to take the bait on this one.
“Mike. Ok. Let me just understand what you’re saying here: It sounds like his description is what you get something out of, and the paintings just remind you of that, so you really only like them by proxy.”
“Well…” Diego came and put down her pizza.
“Ooh, pizza. You want some pizza?”
“No thank you. I ate.”
“You sure? There’s too much for me.” Doubt it.
“No. Thank you. I’m fine.” She shrugged.
“Ok. By the way, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Hi Mike, I’m Ariel.”
“Hi. In order for it to be Art, shouldn’t the paintings stand on their own merit?” She started shaking her head emphatically. “Shouldn’t I be able to walk up to them out of the blue and, if I know anything at all, shouldn’t this spirituality you keep talking about actually come through?”
“No. You really… It’s not like that.”
“From what you’re saying, it really just sounds like the paintings aren’t important.”
“So why doesn’t he just stand up with a microphone and talk about it? Why bring the paintings at all? Maybe he should be an orator instead of a painter. Or wouldn’t he make any money that way?” Game, set, and match.
“Excuse me. Bartender! Can I have more olives please? Jeez. The bartenders here…”
“Are very good and swamped by the madhouse this place has become tonight! He’ll be down here in a second.” Do NOT fuck with the bartenders Mr. Magee.
“You should really hear him explain it. Hold on. I can get him.” She started craning her neck and hunting about the room for Le Artiste.
“No no. That’s really a bad idea.” I can be snarky to the sycophantic hangers on all night. But I wasn’t about to try my hand at decimating the overinflated ego of He Who Would Be King on his Night Of Glory (part deux, judging from the animated idolatry on the video screens.) Besides, it’s not really him I have any interest in messing with. This guy, intolerable as all signs point to him being, has a bunch of paintings in a club and is selling them at $8500 apiece (or, well, presenting them anyway) and has packed the club, having generated sufficient interest (Let’s pretend to ignore the fact that if he wasn’t paying for all their drinks that they wouldn’t be there.) More power to HIM. Hell, I don’t have anything to put on the line like that. But don’t tell me:
- it’s art
- it’s “important”
- it has “meaning”
Because that’s a bunch of disingenuous crap. Sure, he has to say that because he’s playing the role of artist and it’s a part of the marketing. All the more unfortunate for him if he believes his own bullshit. But that’s not something I’ve any interest in exploring.
So I stood up to go to the men’s room, just to break up the conversation. On my way there…
“I just need cigarettes.”
“Yeah, there’s got to be a place around here to buy cigarettes.”
“Sure.” I interjected. ” Right around the corner. Go out the door, turn…”
“HHEEEYYYY!!!! It’s the left-haaannded guyyyy!” slurred the mind-numbingly drunk chicklet.
“Yep. That’s me.”
“So where do we go around here to get cigarettes?”
“Walk out the door, turn left. Go to the corner, turn left and you’ll…”
“It’s the left handed guy Ashley!”
“Hey, do you know where we can go get cigarettes?”
“Nope. Not around here. Sorry.”
I spent the next half hour or so just absorbing the scenery and grabbing snippets of conversation here and there, not one line of which did anything but reinforce my opinion of this artist, his paintings, and the crowd he drew. I knew I was in a bad mood by that time. Hell. I hadn’t started out at my most chipper. I had been looking for a nice bite to eat, some of my favorite conversation and to put a light buzz on. I’d been musing on this and how “my god these people are REALLY REALLY like that.” This wasn’t some contrived Sex & The City episode. These were <strike>real</strike> people, trying to figure this stuff all out. It was scary. Which was one of those A HA moments similar to the one I had when I was doing the internet dating thing in 2002 and girls would say “WOW I’ll bet you’re really $ucce$$ful!”
You look at a room like that, and you see a vast array of cardboard cut-outs. You know what they’re going to say next. You know what they’re going to do, and the more you interact with them the less surprised you are by their total lack of character, individuality and fundamental identity. Then they (of course) get mad when you roll your eyes as you mouth the words that are about to come out of their mouths. I just want to grab them and shake them, give them a good smack and shout “YOU’RE IN THERE! I KNOW YOU ARE. JUST KNOCK THIS SHIT OFF! DON’T WORRY ABOUT THEM, THEY’LL FOLLOW YOUR LEAD.”
A girl walked up to the bar on my right side, 5’7″. She was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a leather vest. She had leather boots of indeterminate height with sufficient heels, and had some nice recent ink, both in the form of a ubiquitous lower-back tattoo and on her left arm. Totally out of place, she was an absolute breath of fresh air.
“Hey. What’s up?” She opened. Knight to King’s Bishop 3.
“Ah, not much. What’s going on with you?”
“Nuthin. Hey, do you mind if I ask you a really personal question?” Oh here it comes.
“Usually I’d say yes.” (lie) “But you don’t look like you fit in here so no, not at all. Fire away. I may even answer it.”
She kept looking down at my notebook (where I had just finished writing “leather vest…” in that particular dialect of cuneiform that leaves me totally secure about leaving this notebook out in strange places.)
“So, are you one of those people who writes because you’re obsessive and it makes the pain go away or are you just taking down notes about the room here tonight?”
“Damn nice question. I’m…”
“Yeah, got an answer?” Full point.
“Both. Hell, I’m just here ’cause its Wednesday and I’m here every Wednesday. Tonight I came in and all this shit was going on, so I thought I should start taking down some raw material and snippets of conversation for the files.”
“Getting there. Programmer who loves to write more than program.”
“Cool. Cool. I’m here with a friend of mine, who invited me along. Not really my Thing.” She looked around at it all. “So what do you think?”
I was ready to bang my head on the 3″ thick glass bar. But I didn’t want to break it.
“I don’t really like it so much. Not my thing either.” I don’t have to be a raving shithead ALL the time. But I ain’t gonna lie about it. “I just don’t think it’s art. Hey. If he can get $8500 for one of these, more power to him. But he ain’t gonna get it from me.”
“So do you live around here?”
“Nope. Brooklyn Heights. I just come here on Wednesdays.”
“Work near here?”
“Nope. Not anymore. But the place and people are worth the trip.”
“Cool. You should really come to my bar.”
What IS it about bartenders? I always pick them out of a crowd, usually without knowing what it is about them that I’m picking out. Frequently they pick me as well. I’ve got a couple theories. But they’re pretty damn pretentious. Believe it or not there’s a limit to my narcissism as well.
“Should I?” What the hell.
“Yeah. You definitely should.”
“Monday. I work Mondays. Yeah, you should definitely come to my bar. It’s on First ave between second and third streets. Called DBA.” Fucking DBA. I knew DBA. Great Whiskey list. “Check out the website. We got webcams and everything so you can check if it’s busy before you come in. drinkgoodstuff.com. Definitely come in.”
“You gonna be here a few minutes? I have to go talk to my friend.” Another one bites the dust. “I promise I’ll be right back, ok? I promise.” Unnecessary, but warming.
So she skampered off, leaving me to go through another cider or two and sidebar some of my notes with conversational fragments.
Believe it or not, she came back.
With a Wookie.
“Hey. I didn’t get your name.” She asked, bringing me back to my senses.
“Mike, Armando. Armando, Mike.”
Armando looks to be 6’3″. He’s Brazilian and what’s more is I have absolutely no idea how I know that. But it’s absolutely true. And no, he didn’t look like a Wookie. He was just a bit dark skinned, big and entirely unexpected. Tends to leave a very particular kind of impression.
“Hi Mike.” He held out his hand, which looked like he had broken it at the wrist. Ah. I see.
“So, what do you think of all this?” Kill me now. He leaned in a bit closer than I’d have liked, “Ithn’t this the most pretentious thing you’ve ever seen?” His voice managed to raise at least a full octave in the midst of his sentence. Imagine Serge from Beverly Hills Cop and you’ll get the idea.
“Oh thank GOD! Armando, you’re a man after my own heart.” Oops! Lit him RIGHT the hell up.
“Oh my god I know. It’s such a bunch of crap! I’ve known him on and off for years. This is actually…. you know what? It’s actually just self-indulgent.” I was writing furiously now. Armando was shaking his head, looking at the paintings. He had a thought and his head shot back around to me.
“Plus he wants to get MORE work done!”
“Ohmygod. I know, can you believe it? Have you SEEN him?”
“I’m not sure I would recognize him if I had. I doubt it though.”
“Well, take a look at the video. He looks great… *sigh* … there.” He turned around and started scanning the room.
“There! See?” He pointed off into the mob. Nope. I didn’t see. I’m neither 6’3″ nor motivated to look for the guy.
“I’ll take your word for it I think.”
“Well, he has hair now. But whatever. He looks AWFUL! And on top of THAT the first thing he said to me tonight was ‘uch, Armando, I think I’m going to get my nose done.’”
I looked up at the screen for traces of nose breakage. *shrug*
“Uhm… you’re not like… gonna use my name or anything, right?” He seemed to take the first notice of the fact that I was writing down every. single. word.
“Nope.” I hoped I’d remember to change it. Newly reassured he started rattling off things about the artist’s past that … yeesh … that I’m not even gonna put in here.
The two of them soaked in the room a bit before wordlessly negotiating their departure.
“Well, it was a pleasure meeting you Mike.” He held out his hand.
“You too Armando.”
The two of them started for the door when she turned half way around.
“Yeah. Hey! I never got your name.”
“Nope. Let’s keep it that way. I’ll just be ‘That Girl’ for a while.” She smiled.
“See ya Monday.”
I just turned back to the bar and laughed for a few minutes, putting some finishing touches on my notes before closing the notebook for a little while.
Thankfully it was thinning out. I think the open bar for these people had closed (I run my own tab, so I don’t notice these things but through the eyes of bartenders.)
The rest of the evening passed relatively uneventfully, with a couple exceptions that are too personal to the people I spoke with to put down in so crass a forum as this.
But I was absolutely amazed at the number of characters I had met. Right out of central casting. It really defied all imagination.
When I got home I looked up the “gossip columnist”s url and found a defunct blog with sporadic entries every 3-6 months or so. Hmmpf.
And the next Monday I did go to DBA, where there was a Whiskey 101 class starting, so I attended. And, the “nameless” girl? Married. Still nameless. Totally bewildered at how I could’ve got the impression she had been flirty.
Stuff like this doesn’t always happen. In fact, it very rarely happens. Oh, SOMEthing always happens. But nothing like that night. And never all at once like this. I could shaggy dog this out to 150 pages; filling it with rich anecdotes that would keep you laughing a lot, thinking a little. Then I could put a cover on it and call it “A Night At Slate” and who knows? It might even sell. But I’m nowhere near ready for that. Not yet.
Instead I’ll just hit post.