Paul’s brain buzzed as he left the bar after three rounds with his new co-workers at International Metals, a daily trade paper that covered commodity prices, imports and exports, ingots and alloys he’d never heard of before. Rolled up and shoved into his back pocket was today’s issue, sixteen tabloid pages with his byline on page three—Copper Producers Announce Price Increase. Earlier in the day, Carmen, the chief of the copy desk, had drawn a heart in red pencil around the date—Friday, June 14, 1985—and written below it: “You’re an IM’er now.” At the end of the day, when Carmen, another reporter named Jason, and Don, a lifer at forty-two who had worked at the paper for twenty years, invited him to go out for drinks, Paul had accepted.
Now, Paul stood on the corner three blocks from the tavern near the office in Lower Manhattan, and waited for a Brinks truck to rumble by so he could cross to the other side of the street. He was twenty-five, which felt so much older than twenty-four, and he had to get moving soon on his real life and career instead of wasting time in placeholder jobs, like the two years he’d spent as a researcher for a hole-in-the-wall marketing firm. He couldn’t stay at International Metals too long—six months, a year tops—Paul told himself yet again. But at least he was a reporter. New York journalism had proved harder to break into than he’d expected when he moved to the city two years ago with a degree from Syracuse University and a portfolio of clips from stringing for the Post-Standard.
By the time Paul reached Broadway, the crowds thickened, and he slowed his pace. The humid air stirred into a steady breeze. As he strolled along, Paul drank in noise and energy unlike anything he’d experienced anyplace else—certainly not back home in a too-small upstate town where everybody knew his old man who was a mechanic and called him Paulie like he was still eight years old.
Paul crossed Fourteenth Street and headed into Greenwich Village. People spilled out of trendy restaurants into al fresco dining. A flutter of women his age passed him, one lovelier than the next, all tanned legs and rippling hemlines. No big hair like the girls who took the train from Jersey; no sneakers with pompom socks, either. They walked in high-heeled sandals, some with straps so thin, Paul wondered how they didn’t snap.
He smiled, but not one of the women made eye contact. It wasn’t for a lack of looks; Paul knew he had his mother’s good features and his father’s broad-shouldered, but slim build and sandy hair that bleached to dirty blond in the summer sun. But his wrinkled khakis, sweat-dampened shirt, and knotted tie of raggedy silk branded him far below these young women’s expectations.
They were armed for Brooks Brothers, and he was J.C. Penney.
By the time he ended up on Seventh Avenue, his feet hurting in cheap shoes with thin soles, Paul was ready to get on the subway to go home, a thought that depressed him a little since it was Friday night in New York City. Then he saw a hanging wooden sign for The Twenty-Third Street Bar & Grille. The blunt-faced brick tavern lacked any frill or embellishment other than Budweiser written in neon in the darkened front window. Paul was thirsty and sober from all the walking; drinks would be cheap here, he figured, and beer even cheaper.
Bulky forms crouched atop barstools like shapeless gargoyles. A jukebox crooned an old Dean Martin song Paul remembered his mother liking. He murmured the title aloud: “Memories are made of this.”
Behind the bar, a blond woman with a streak of dark roots wiped glasses with a limp rag. A short man with thick muscled arms stepped out of the back with a case of beer. Paul took the stool at the closest corner.
“Don’t serve no white wine here,” a guy in a dark t-shirt that stretched over his ballooning belly announced. Chuckles rippled down the bar.
“Bud,” Paul ordered.
“Don’t have no light beer neither,” the guy added.
The bartender put down a sweat-streaked bottle and a glass. Paul took a deep drink from the bottle.
“You slummin’—up from Wall Street?” the guy went on.
It was the tie, Paul realized, a ratty strip of navy with red stripes. He’d loosened it, but forgotten to take it off. Back home at McDuff’s he would have gotten the same razzing, his father’s friends asking if he was running for mayor dressed like that. When he’d gotten accepted to Syracuse, even though it was only an hour away, they’d started calling him Professor Paulie.
“You think I’d drink here if I were a Wall Streeter?” Paul raised his chin.
A laugh rose on the other side of the guy with the belly. “Leave him alone, Broader. The young man has impeccable logic.”
The voice was deep, the words crisply annunciated. Broader jerked his thumb toward the man who’d spoken. “Zeke knows more than the rest of us put together.”
By the end of the evening, after several beers and a bucket of chicken wings brought in from the place across the street, Paul still knew little about Zeke, who much preferred to tell the tales of others at The Twenty-Third Street Bar & Grille. Paloma, the bartender, had been a backup singer for some Sixties band Paul never heard of. Charlie Henderson, the short man toting cases of beer, inherited the bar from his uncle, who might have been his real father. Broader, who proudly spoke about working for “the City of Noo Yawrk,” had spent one semester ten years ago at Rutgers on a football scholarship, until he blew out his knee in the first game and then never went to class.
“What about you?” Paul asked Zeke. “You don’t look like you belong here.”
“You think I’m slumming like you, because I don’t say ‘dem’ and ‘dose’ or lose track of my subject-verb agreement.” Zeke shook his head. “This is my home as much as any other.”
“So, what’s your story?”
Zeke raised grizzled eyebrows so heavy Paul figured his facial muscles must strain with the effort. “What’s anybody’s?”
Paloma poured them both a shot and one for herself. “His name’s Ezekiel—like the Bible. Ezekiel Homer. Comes from Boston.”
“Marlborough, but close enough,” Zeke said.
“Homer! Shoulda played baseball with a last name like that,” Broader snorted.
“Or written another Odyssey,” Paul added.
Zeke saluted him with the shot glass, then emptied the dark liquid.
The next morning, his head fuzzy and his tongue thick, Paul stayed in bed, awake but with his eyes closed, wishing he could get up and find a pot of coffee already made, strong and hot. But he never used his stove having seen more than a few cockroaches skitter underneath it. His small studio apartment consisted of a place to put a futon, stacks of books along the wall—Paul had never bothered to buy shelves—and a rattan chair he’d found on the street.
He used the bathroom, dressed quickly and headed out, grabbing a thick book with a blue vinyl cover. Between First and Second Avenues, the neighborhood was sketchy above East Ninety-Sixth Street, and he was on Ninety-Ninth. Paul passed patches of dried vomit and shards of broken glass on the sidewalk; the alleys wreaked of urine.
At the Greek diner on the corner at Eighty-Eighth and Second Avenue, Paul ordered a coffee and a toasted bagel. When he asked for extra cream cheese, the waitress gave him three miniature tubs, instead of the usual one. A man behind the counter called out to her in words Paul didn’t understand, and the waitress waved her hand back at him, then smiled shyly at Paul. “My father says I have to charge you extra for these two—but I’m going to forget, okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” Paul grinned and wondered what she’d say if he asked her out, but her father hadn’t stopped frowning over at him.
Paul opened the book, The International Metals Almanac, that the editor had given him on his first day. He scanned the pages about copper, the mines in the Southwestern United States, Canada, and South America; Chile was the world’s biggest producer. Sometimes copper ore contained quantities of gold, silver, molybdenum, and lead that can be extracted commercially.
Paul closed the book and paid for his breakfast.
Leaving the diner, Paul decided to take a walk and headed toward Central Park. When a couple of joggers passed him, Paul told himself he should start running again—clear his mind, keep his body in shape. By evening, after talking to a friend by phone, he promised to turn up at a party that night. It was still early when he took the Lexington line local to Twenty-Third Street and then walked west to Seventh Avenue.
Zeke was there already, a nearly full beer in front of him and an empty shot glass to the side. Paul wondered how early in the day Zeke started, but the man never seemed drunk, his words never anything but crisp and proper as good stationery.
“So you’ve decided to make it a habit?” Zeke cocked one of those mountainous eyebrows.
“Yeah, I was nearby. I’ve got to be somewhere later,” Paul began.
Broader came in a while later, signaling for a beer that Paloma already had for him.
“You’re in my seat.” Broader looked down at Paul.
“Sorry, I was talking to Zeke.” Paul slid over one.
“S’okay,” Broader said. “Been out in Queens all day. My sister’s kid’s birthday. I’m telling you, she’s a nut—my sister is. Hires this clown—a real clown. Wig, shoes, the whole nine yards. The guy is awful. Balloons keep poppin’ on him. Kids are scared. He’s not even funny. I coulda been a better clown.”
“Something to aspire to,” Zeke said.
Paul snorted a laugh mid-swallow of beer and felt the burn in the back of his nose.
Around eleven-thirty, Paul decided to go to the party after all, even though it was all the way up on 110th Street on the West Side, a block from Riverside Drive. By the time he arrived, the party had wound done.
“You get lost?” asked his friend, Danny, whom Paul had met at the market research firm. Danny had just moved into the apartment with this girlfriend, Donna; the party was their housewarming, Paul remembered. He should have brought something.
Paul stayed an hour, apologized again for showing up so late, and promised to get together with them very soon. Leaving, Paul wondered if he’d ever see Danny and Donna now that they were a couple. Maybe he wouldn’t hear from them again until they sent out wedding invitations. Maybe they wouldn’t even invite him.
On Monday night after work, he went back to The Twenty-Third Street as the regulars called the bar—emphasizing “the” to distinguish it from the thoroughfare around the corner.
“You’re a regular.” Paloma put a Bud at his place, to the left of Broader and two down from Zeke.
Paul raised the beer to toast his new home.
Some nights after four beers, Paul switched to Coke to douse his worries about how much and how frequently he was drinking. Broader teased him sometimes, asking if he wanted a Shirley Temple, but Zeke never did. “Man has to know what and why he’s drinking,” Zeke said.
At home Paul tallied the beers in his head, telling himself that thirty spread over a whole week wasn’t that much. He’d drunk more than that in college—everybody did. What else was there to do in Syracuse in the middle of winter?
The next night and the one after that, he was back at The Twenty-Third Street. The place drew him because of its familiarity—like McDuff’s in that way, and more than a few times Paul wondered if he were merely homesick. It was his oasis from the pretentions of the city, Paul told himself. One evening, after a press event at the Waldorf Astoria sponsored by Rio Tinto, a British-Australian mining company, where he’d eaten a shrimp appetizer that looked like a miniature lobster tail, Paul couldn’t wait to get to The Twenty-Third Street. Here was real life, not that commodity trading bullshit. Those guys in their suits and Italian-made shoes didn’t know half as much as Zeke, who alternately was rumored to be a former English professor, a Harvard graduate, or a lawyer who’d worked for a large firm in Boston. Whenever Paul pressed him, Zeke waved the questions away like so many drowsy flies. “Don’t be impressed by what someone was,” he’d say.
Then one night, a firecracker hot evening in early August, when the heat-oppressed city streets were empty and anyone with another place to go was there, Zeke intoned the masterpiece. Paul was there that night, as was Broader and a few of the regular guys. Only Charlie was missing because of gallbladder surgery, but the place ran itself when the owner was away.
Zeke fingered his rocks glass possessively, a generous double shot of whiskey, and angled his eyes to Paloma on the other side of the bar, who’d been complaining nonstop about bad customers and worse boyfriends, and the places she’d be if she weren’t there.
“Yea, though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, you are with me. Thy rod and thy staff, and thy 120 proof comfort me.” Zeke raised his glass of Jim Beam, the amber catching the light, transfigured.
Paul laughed and pounded the bar with the flat of his hand. Paloma stomped away angrily.
Zeke arched those bushy gray eyebrows and smiled: “The Twenty-Third Street Psalm.”
Paul grabbed at it like some existential truth: this crummy bar, its floor sticky with beer and bathrooms that stunk of urine and cleaning fluid, was the only real place he knew.
“It’s all lies.” Paul leaned around Broader to speak directly to Zeke. “Out there is all illusion, people pretending because they were too damn scared to be real. They all think they’re special, but they’re not. I’m just as good as any of them—and I don’t have to prove it to know that’s true.”
Zeke nodded. “You only have to prove who you are to yourself, but sometimes that’s the tricky part.”
Broader got up and shuffled toward the bathroom.
Paul signaled Paloma for another beer. “What’s the rest of it, Zeke—after the rod and the staff?”
“You anoint my head with oil, my shot glass overflows.” Zeke bowed reverentially and emptied his drink.
Paul kept it up for a while, scrambling for phrases to complete the psalm parody, but Zeke disengaged. Then for the first time in all the nights at The Twenty-Third Street, Zeke paid up and left before Paul did.
The next week Broader was in a sour mood, complaining that he’d been “this close”—holding his stubby thumb and calloused forefinger an inch apart—to getting in with the Longshoremen. His brother-in-law was up there in the union ranks. “But now they’re talking strike. Even if it don’t last long, they won’t be hiring for a while.”
Paul set his beer down. “What port, Broader?”
“New York—what do you think? Vermont?”
Zeke’s lips curled slowly. “Methinks the reporter sniffs a story.”
“New York and New Jersey?” Paul replied.
“Yeah—well, New York for sure.”
Paul emptied his drink and left. He needed to go in early the next morning.
The copper producers had no comment, but a couple of the scrap dealers in New Jersey had heard the same rumors. Paul never revealed his source, and the front page byline made him proud. Prouder still was the mention the next day in the fourth paragraph of a one-column story on an inside page in the Business Section of the New York Times: Longshoremen Hint at Strike. “….The trade journal, International Metals, quoting scrap metal dealers in New Jersey, indicated a strike would be possible if there is any breakdown in negotiations.”
“Indicated?” Paul talked back to the newspaper in his hands. “They said a strike was a sure thing.”
“Nice job, rookie,” Don smiled.
Carmen gave him a stack of front pages and told him to buy extra copies of the Times. “For your clips, you know?” she whispered.
Jason didn’t say much of anything at all. On his lunch break, Paul went to a pay phone on the corner and called home collect. His mother accepted the charges with a worried voice. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Ma. It’s good—I got quoted in the New York Times—or at least my story did.” Paul cupped his hand over the receiver so his mother could hear him over the traffic. It took two attempts to explain before she understood.
“Oh that’s great, Paulie! Make sure you send me a copy. I want to read all about it.”
Paul promised he would and hung up. Collect calls were expensive and he couldn’t linger on the line.
After work, Paul wondered if Zeke had seen the story in the Times. He had a copy of it along with his front-page article to show him. When he got to the bar, though, Zeke didn’t look up when Paul called his name. Broader’s stool was empty, but Paul took his usual spot.
Paloma set a beer down at his usual place, but when Paul reached for his money, Zeke told him to put his wallet away. “Your drinks are on me tonight.”
“Why? I got money.”
“Yes, but tonight is your graduation.” Zeke rotated his beer mug around to grip the handle.
“I don’t follow.”
“This is your last night here, Paul.”
Paul took a long drink. “Why—they closing down?”
“No, we’re closing you down.” Zeke’s eyes bore into him under those bushy brows. “What are you doing here, kid like you? You’re what, twenty-five. Smart, college-educated—Syracuse University for God’s sake. This is not the place for you.”
Paul balled his fists against the bar. “So, you’re what—my father? You think I can’t decide where I want to have a beer?”
Zeke wagged his grizzled head. “No, but I am telling you that you can do better—better than here, better than us, better than me.”
Paul turned away and raised the Bud bottle. “I’m doing just fine.”
Zeke signaled for a shot. Paloma poured, and Zeke drained it quickly.
“You got quoted in the Times,” Zeke said.
“Yeah, so—” Paul felt his jaw muscle tighten.
“You don’t get it, do you? It isn’t the bar or the booze or anything out there. It’s what’s in there.” Zeke stabbed at Paul’s temple with his finger.
Paul finished his beer and ordered a second, just to show Zeke he could decide for himself. When he got up to leave, Zeke grabbed his forearm. “Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. That’s how it ends, Paul. Goodness and mercy.”
Thirty-years later, the place is still there. Even the name is the same: The Twenty-Third Street Bar & Grille. It is only two o’clock in the afternoon, early enough for Zeke back in the old days, but nowhere near cocktail hour for those who dwell in moderation. But Dylan, his youngest son, is in the midst of orientation at New York University, and Paul has three hours to kill. Father and son will have dinner that night, and then he will head back in the morning.
The brick façade juts toward the sidewalk, not even an awning over the wooden door. The front window is dark at all hours, except for the neon halo of Sam Adams, a Boston brew that back in the day never would have been allowed at The Twenty-Third Street.
The doorknob is slightly sticky when Paul puts his hand on it. He reaches in his pocket for a brown recycled-paper napkin that came with his latte that morning and polishes the brass. Veneration for the old place.
A young man is behind the bar. Most of the stools are empty. The bright colors of an arcade game flash in the corner. The jukebox is gone.
Paul takes a seat in the middle of the bar in what had been his usual spot next to Broader and down two from Zeke. Even their ghosts have long departed, and he knows better than to ask about them. The bartender has never heard of Charlie Henderson who was the owner back then.
After ordering Budweiser for old time’s sake, although he would prefer a Sam Adams, Paul drinks slowly, remembering the chain of events from that distant night. He went back two or three more times to The Twenty-Third Street Bar & Grille and had light conversations with Zeke that always seemed to be about something other than the big topic of needing to move on with his life. By the end of the that year, he’d quit International Metals, started freelancing, then applied for a master’s degree at Columbia University. After a brief stint at Newsday and then five years at Newsweek, he went back for his doctorate. He became Professor Paulie after all, teaching at his alma mater.
In the middle of all that, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Paul took off a month to spend with her before she died. After that he went back regularly to visit his father, who later got remarried to a neighbor woman. When his father died two years ago, Paul had delivered a eulogy of all the things he wished he’d told his parents over the years, a tribute to small-town folks who understood more about life than he ever learned. The essay, “What I Never Told My Parents,” was published in The Atlantic. Paul always hoped Zeke had seen the column somehow, knowing that half the things he wrote applied to him, too.
When his beer is done, Paul leaves a twenty on the bar, a generous tip that has nothing to do with the service. The bartender tries to hand him the change. “Keep it,” he says. “I owe it, from back in the old days.”
He cannot explain that it is an offering, his tithe, to this holy place.
Image Credit: © Kamenuka | Dreamstime.com – Busy New York Street. Watercolor Sketch.