Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A well-lighted night in the Tempus Fugit.

A hot slurry of pigeons, rats, dogshit, rubbish and what passes for air has descended once again on New York. The temperature, even in the evenings, is circa 90, and there hasn’t been even the wisp of a breeze besides that which comes from slamming shut taxi doors and the curses of Punjabi drivers.

The building I live in has central air, and each of the cooling units in each of the apartments 190 units has been gasping on high—hoping against hope to put a dent in the heat. But by last night, the temperature had creeped up too far, the humidity was too high and Whiskey and I decided to try our luck cooling down at the Tempus Fugit.

I threw on an old grey t-shirt and girded Whiskey with her collar. We set out on a walk—about a mile in length—that we had done so many times before.

We arrived on East 91st Street and navigated downstairs and upstairs, through a warren of small hallways, sliding open steel expansion gates, fiddling with door handles, until we finally hit the Tempus Fugit. The Tempus Fugit was there as it is always there, impervious to time and the elements.

I sat down, my grey t-shirt fairly soaked through with perspiration, on my favorite stool, one in from the end and Whiskey curled by my feet. The bartender was quick from behind the bar on little cat’s feet, like Phil Rizzuto. He nimbly placed a small wooden bowl of ice water in front of her. He was back behind the bar in another instant, pulling in one motion a Pike’s Ale (the ALE that won for YALE) for me and sliding it deftly in front of me.

Before he had settled back to his stance, I drained the full eight-ounces and slid my empty juice glass back his way. He pulled me Pike’s number two and then he began.

“The heat has become like a character in a play by Tennessee Williams,” he began. “It has a presence and a large speaking part.”

“Certainly, the heat is on everyone’s lips,” I added dimly.

He placed in front of me a small bowl of Mr. Salty pretzels. I grabbed a handful if only to replenish the salt I lost walking up to the Tempus Fugit.

“During the heat wave of 1972, the heat played rougher than Raymond Chandler with a set of brass knuckles.”

He paraphrased, “Meek little wives are feeling the edge of carving knives and studying their husbands’ necks.”

“Chandler could really sling it, couldn’t he?”

“From July 13 to July 20th, 1972, there were 57 homicides in the City. That’s more than seven a day. That would add up to more than 2,500 for the year—more than three times the number of US soldiers than were killed that year in Vietnam.”

I emptied my second Pike’s and he filled me up again. He did so with not a single wasted motion.

“Of course murders happen in darkness. And there was no shortage of darkness that July. In just over a week, New York saw outages that hit 400,000 people, then 200,000, then three-quarters of a million.”

“That sounds about par for the course these days,” I said. “Though I have to give Con-Ed credit, since hurricane Sandy, the lights have been on.”

“The lights have never gone out in the Tempus Fugit.” He wiped the varnished bar in a tight circular motion with a white terry towel.

“What about in ’65?” I asked. “What about in ’77?” Those were the years of two major blackouts in New York. The first was in November and half of New York feared it was prelude to a Soviet nuclear onslaught or a Cuban one. The second one spurred the worst riots and looting since the 1863 Civil War draft riots.

He removed the glass in front of me, wiped it a few times, then drew me another Pike’s. He circled around the bar with an aluminum tumbler full of ice-water, he re-filled Whiskey’s bowl. She was still panting from the heat of the walk up and eagerly welcomed the cool.

“We never lost power,” the bartender said calmly. “It was like the miracle at Lourdes.”
“Verizon must have its own generator,” I offered. Verizon--the telecom company--occupies most of the old warehouse building.

He smiled and continued polishing the varnished teak to the bar-top. We sat in silence for a good five minutes.

“No,” he said. “We never lost our lights.”


"We have an obligation," he said as he polished.

I got up to leave. The sun would be up in an hour. I passed two twenties over to him. He pushed them back like a champion volley-baller.

“On me,” he said.

And Whiskey and I walked home in the dark.

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