Tuesday, September 7, 2021

For Terry. Wherever I may find him.

It had been too long since I had been in the city. With my ever-loving not willing to make the trip, late one night--late for me anyway--I fired up my 1966 Simca 1500 and started the 100-mile trek.

I say trek because when you have a 1966 Simca even a two-mile drive to the Citgo station is a journey into the unknown. You don't know what will happen, what will fling itself from the car, or when something will start-or-stop-working as it should. And old car--especially an old car like a Simca--is like having in your possession a genie's bottle. With smoke, sometimes blue, sometimes red, sometimes green coming out its business-end, you never quite know if your mobility wishes will be granted or denied.

Part of the charm in days of yore, of course, was not knowing where you were headed. Of turning left instead of right and finding a general store that's been selling the same fresh-squeezed lime-rickeys since 1931, and they're like nothing else you've ever had. That's all gone with ever-present GPS that charts the location of your nasal backwash when you sneeze.

Today, everything that should be a mystery is sure of itself. And everything that should be a sure thing is a mystery--like plane schedules, mail delivery and even presidential elections. Like in Shakespeare's Macbeth, we live in a topsy-turvy world where fair is foul and foul is fair. No good will come of this. Listen, is that Banquo's ghost? Or Bret Kavanaugh?

After entering the interstate and accelerating for a good minute and a half, I finally got the Simca up to 80 and I stayed wedged in the fast-lane behind an 18-wheeled behemoth probably taking used-Covid-masks to some fetid landfill out in Jersey. But the guy behind the wheel was a good driver, bent on keeping an even speed, and I tucked in close to enjoy his slipstream, my broken fuel gauge moving even less than usual.

After 90 minutes, I veered off of 95 and onto the Bruckner, a highway only slightly less bumpy than the road from Peshawar to Kandahar. I crossed from east to west the Bronx, skidded down Alexander Avenue to take the free bridge over the Harlem River and avoid Robert Moses' Triboro toll-booths. When Moses built the Triboro, the tolls, it was said, would pay for the bridge in five years, then disappear. It's 85 years later now and they cost roughly a private-school tuition.

Seconds later I veered off the cantilevered bridge and was scooting down Second Avenue, timing the lights with the prowess of an old Jewish cabbie. I made it without stopping at a red-light all the way down from 126th Street to 97th Street, a modern-day record. 

At 97th, I saw three burly Puerto Rican fishermen carrying their bait and tackle, heading home from a night on the river to the fluorescent-lit apartments over in the Stanley M. Isaacs Houses, a public project that hasn't seen a coat of paint since Robert Wagner was mayor.

Stopped at the light, I rolled down my window, and asked, in my terrible Spanish,

"How was the fishing?"

The shortest of the three men, the one with the heaviest stubble answered in his terrible English, "The fishing is always good, mi amigo. It is the catching that varies."

"That is Kierkegaard, is it not," I parried.

"Who else," the stubbled piscator replied.

I yanked the Simca over to the curb--I was within the limits of the unwritten laws of Saturday night driving in New York and was only triple-parked. I asked the men if they were thirsty for una cerveza. Before I knew it, the threesome were piled in the rear vinyl, their long fishing gear scratching the sky out from my back windows.

When you've lived in New York as long as I have, you either get good at the city or you don't. The main barometer is, of course, your ability to find a parking space within spitting distance of wherever it is you're going. With that, I pulled right in front of the bar that has no sign and my three Puerto Rican philosophers and I went down four hallways, up five more, through six or eight galvanized steel-clad doors and then stepped inside the dull incandescence of the Tempus Fugit.

I sat in my usual seat, one in from the end of the bar. Two of my new friends sat to my left, the shortest, stubbliest one, sat to my right.

"Four Pikes'," said the bartender. He began filling small six-ounce juice glasses with the nectar.

"The Ale that Won for Yale," one of the fishermen said, reading the dull, dusty neon. "What means that."

The bartender placed a glass of amber in front of each of us on damp coasters that had edges that curled up.

"You'll know when you taste it," he answered.

We dinked glasses like Terry Malloy did with Edie Dugan in "Waterfront." I gave them my best back-of-the-throat Brando, "Here's to the foist one. I hope it ain't d' last. Dink."

And we downed our suds in one ball-game-sized gulp. Quick as a tax-collector, the bartender had our glasses filled again. Then he began with the evening's line of questioning.

"Who are the mugs?" he asked, working his damp cloth over the gleaming mahogany. 

"Practitioners of the Piscine Arts," I answered. "They have lived in the Stanley M. Isaacs Houses since they were, in the words of Slip Mahoney, "destructed" in 1965. Yet they have never heard of the Tempus Fugit, despite living in your veritable shadow.

"Welcome, friends." The bartender offered, extending his giant mitt to each as a greeting. "Welcome to the Tempus Fugit, where time stays still because it flies."

The shortest one said, "That is Kierkegaard, is it not?"

As an answer, the bartender slid over two small wooden bowls of salted Spanish peanuts. In unison, we each extended a hand and pushed them away. "A pound in every nut," I offered.

"And where is Whiskey tonight? You don't often come in without your furriest friend."

"She is dreaming of ducks and fish on the Connecticut coast," I answered. "Just a quick trip for me. I needed the city and a Pike's. And of course, the prevailing ambiance."

"As Frost wrote," the bartender began, "the Californian with the Yankee accent, '
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.'"

"Si," said the smallest, stubbliest and most talkative of the fisherman. "That is why we are on the East River even when there are no fish. It reminds us of home."

"It takes us in," said another of the men.

The four of us, again in unison, drained our juice glasses and pushed back from the mahogany our stools. 

I slid a $50 to the bartender. 

"Does that cover it?" I asked.

"On me," he answered. "And welcome home."

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